Getting Bigger in Big Sky Country

The Montana Virtual Human Services Pavilion continues to add services for its users.

by / May 7, 2001
The Montana Virtual Human Services Pavilion continues to add services for its users.

Montanas Virtual Human Services Pavilion (VHSP) was created to aid in welfare reform but has done much more. For less than the estimated $3 million invested in the online marvel, the pavilion allows users to post and find jobs, helps Medicaid providers determine the eligibility of patients and offers doors into the commerce and education fields.

Despite nationwide interest and a commitment from state legislators who included the VHSP in an appropriations bill during the recently concluded session, this complete, one-stop shop hasnt taken off elsewhere.

"Weve had a lot of inquiries," said Mike Billings, administrator of the Operations and Technology Division of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. "But we really havent spent a lot of time marketing it."

Helping Hand
Thats because Billings, his staff and TRW have been busy adding elements to the pavilion.

The latest is the virtual assistant, which recently concluded its testing phase and should be in operation this month. Users who click on it are shown a list of viewable topics, and are taken to the topic of choice. The virtual assistant is essentially a search tool that searches all sites associated with the VHSP.

People who use the virtual assistant will find information on a workers toolbox, Medicaid, birth certificates, public assistance, senior and long-term care, child care, the Department of Public Health and Human Services, the Health and Policy Services Division, employer services and job-seeker services.

One-Stop Shop
Billings said the goal of the VHSP is to modernize the concept of the one-stop shop, hence the reason for recently adding services to the pavilion.

One recent addition is a nursing-home-comparison link. People can dial into a nursing-care kiosk and determine if a nursing home is up to standards. Deficiencies are noted there, so anyone researching nursing homes can do so from home, rather than driving all over the state.

An expansion is in the area of labor and industry. An employer who posts jobs in the pavilion doesnt have to bother with sending them to the state. The same employer can also search for qualified people to fill these jobs, sometimes eliminating the need to post the jobs in the first place. Also enhanced is the national job-search system, which gives Montana residents greater ease and flexibility in finding a job.

Upcoming enhancements and expansions include using a credit card to pay for a copy of ones birth certificate. The system now in place is password-protected, a major jump from a year ago when, to get a birth certificate, a person had to visit a county clerk and recorders office or the states vital records bureau, or receive a mailed application.

"You fill out the application and send along 10 bucks. After about three or four communications, you end up getting a birth certificate but it might take you three months," Billings said. Now the process through the pavilion takes about three minutes, as the birth certificate is produced online in the vital records bureau. The credit-card option will be available later this year.

Billings is working with the Montana Department of Justice to build a records-history system to document all of the records of criminals convicted in the state. What currently exists is the ability to screen nursing home attendants and child care attendants. But when the criminal-history records system is online, it will be used by public schools to research job applicants.

The administrator is also working with the Department of Commerce, and hopes to allow users the ability to access low-cost housing.

Flying Solo
Despite the pavilions success, Billings and TRW are all alone in Montana. TRW has displayed the pavilion to potential customers and Billings has orchestrated several demonstrations of the VHSP in the past six to eight months.

The Montana administrator has also spent considerable time making himself and the VHSP available to state legislators, who initially didnt want to even enter the pavilion. For legislators on a subcommittee in charge of determining the pavilions funding, this was "just one more computer thing to deal with."

"It is always a struggle to convince people in the Montana Legislature to spend money on technology and computers," said state Sen. Mignon Waterman, who sits on the human services subcommittee for finance and claims, which oversees the budget for Billings department.

The frigid reception eventually thawed, thanks, in part, to people like Waterman, and Billings later received a lukewarm reception. Now, the elected officials question how they survived without the pavilion. "Theyre crazy about it. They think its wonderful," he said. "They referenced it as the methodology for getting information out and require that we provide reports on the VHSP so the public can get at them."

"In a state like Montana, where were spread out, I always felt that to physically locate services in one location wasnt going to happen in a lot of communities," Waterman said. "But I felt for a long time that there should be no reason why we couldnt do anything via computer. The virtual pavilion has done that and a lot more. It essentially allows not only us in government but anyone to access the services that are available in an understandable way."

Part of that is the quality of the pavilion. But Billings plays a large role.

"Working with Mike is a little bit of a challenge. Hes got more ideas than we can keep up with, and thats why I think this thing has been such a huge success," said Jack Ellary, site director for TRW. "This is pretty much a basic application of Internet technology. Its not anything that any other state couldnt do. I think that you need to have someone with a vision to control it and I think you cant do it haphazardly. You need to have somewhat of a road map of where youre going."

"Stigma Reduction"
The pavilions map shows a pattern woven through the Medicaid system, which currently includes roughly 10,000 doctors and service providers. One of the roads big potholes is determining a patients eligibility, including why the determination is sometimes delayed or denied.

A Montana Eligibility and Payment System (MEPS) database lets a provider dial in with a password and access all of the claim information for a client, including third-party liability and pertinent demographics.

One aspect will be Medicaid recipients receiving what looks like a regular insurance card instead of the current card that is nearly the size of a piece of writing paper and recognizable by everyone, including other patients, in the doctors office.

The smaller card offers what Billings calls "stigma reduction" because of its look. The card, which will only be mailed once, is given to a provider, who then looks at VHSP and determines eligibility. In addition, the state saves money through decreased postage. Instead of sending out the big cards monthly to 40,000 Medicaid recipients, the state sends the smaller cards with eligibility information available to health care providers in the pavilion. This program is slated to begin early this fall.

No Boundaries
The VHSP has no boundaries, Billings said, artificial or otherwise. The pavilion extends beyond the states borders to assist Montana residents, and the number of additions to the pavilion is limitless.

"This approach would work no matter what the population density is; obviously, ours is really low," Billings said. "We have a need for quick access to information in some areas where maybe information isnt all that accessible. We have need for rural services in the state, and rural services arent always available in the urban areas."

Those services will happen, depending on which doors of the VHSP are opened.

This article appears in the July issue of Technology Trends, a supplement to Government Technology magazine. All rights reserved.