Fundamentally changing how government programs operate is never easy -- and changing entitlement programs is nearly impossible. Such is the issue facing Texas.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) is in the midst of a systemwide overhaul of its functionality, and one component of that effort is altering how the HHSC delivers social services.

As part of its overhaul, the HHSC eliminated nearly one-third of its brick-and-mortar human services offices in favor of four centralized call centers. These call centers are supposed to streamline the application process for Texans looking for state benefits.

The HHSC's decision to turn to call centers stirred debate and plenty of newspaper coverage. Central to the ongoing debate is the problem of public policy lagging technology.

No Dotted Line

Food stamps are one of the most commonly sought benefits, and the HHSC intended to create a fully integrated eligibility system Texans could use to apply for these benefits. The result is the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System (TIERS), privately managed through a contract with technology consultant Accenture.

TIERS is a multiyear project designed to create an integrated, Web-based eligibility determination system for health and human services programs in Texas, the HHSC said, and eligibility workers at the call centers were to use TIERS to assess eligibility and deliver food, cash assistance, medical and community-care services to needy Texans.

With the call centers in place and TIERS operational, the HHSC had planned on Texans telephoning the call centers to apply for benefits. But that created a problem.

The Food Stamp Act of 1977 required that food stamp applications have a physical signature from the applicant -- which is impossible over the phone. Thus, an unanticipated controversy was created.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), the agency responsible for issuing food stamps, said Texas must comply with the federal law. The HHSC, meanwhile, said it believes the law does not preclude the state from accepting a phone call in lieu of a physical signature.

Letter of the Law

The Food Stamp Act, like many laws, understandably failed to take into account uninvented technologies at the time of the law's passage. Both the FNS and the HHSC cited passages from the Food Stamp Act to support their case.

Section 11(e)(2)(B)(iv) reads that state agencies shall "consider an application that contains the name, address and signature of the applicant to be filed on the date the applicant submits the applications."

According to the FNS, oral consent does not constitute a signature.

The HHSC cited section 2020(e)(2)(C), which reads, "Nothing in this Act shall prohibit the use of signatures provided and maintained electronically, storage of records using automated retrieval systems only, or any other feature of a state agency's application system that does not rely exclusively on the collection and retention of paper applications or other records."

Texas claims this indicates that a phone call can replace a physical signature.

The disagreement stems from interpreting the law, according to HHSC Communications Director Stephanie Goodman.

"Our interpretation is the law would allow us to take a signature by phone, but the USDA disagrees," she said. "The idea was to speed the process as much as possible. Since the start of your benefits would track to your application date, if we could take the signature by phone -- which we think the law allows us to do -- then the onus is really on the state to process that application more quickly, and the benefits would start that date."

The HHSC claims that giving a telephone call the same faculty as an actual signature, or even an e-signature, would

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.