February 18, 2009 By Hilton Collins
In 2002, Wisconsin began assessing its enrollment process for public health programs because the state wanted to improve citizens' access to them. Wisconsin was inspired by Pennsylvania's COMPASS system, a Web-based application for benefits enrollment.
Wisconsin applied for a grant from the Food and Nutrition Service, an agency under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), with the intent to build a similar Web-based tool for people to apply for benefits, check existing benefits status and discern eligibility. In 2003, the Food and Nutrition Service granted Wisconsin $1.7 million along with $1.3 million from the state Department of Health Services for enhancements to internal eligibility systems, the state had about $3 million to get started.
Wisconsin hired consultancy Deloitte, and contractors traveled to communities to talk with focus groups of citizens, county employees and others. Jones said the listening tour took about four months. With Deloitte's findings, Wisconsin decided the solution should be short, confidential, easy to use and at a fourth-grade reading level. The first ACCESS application, the "Am I Eligible?" tool -- where people input information to be screened for program eligibility -- went live in August 2004. The three other tools followed in 2005 and 2006: "Check My Benefits" in September 2005, "Apply for Benefits" in June 2006 and "Report My Changes" in September 2006. Jones estimated that it took about $6 million to get ACCESS where it is now.
After filing a memorandum of understanding, Wisconsin gave New York the ACCESS code on Feb. 4, 2008. Then the state forged ahead on design and development and contracted with Deloitte for assistance. The first phase of myBenefits was the eligibility prescreening tool released in May 2008. The next phase, released in late August 2008, incorporated screening for home energy assistance and the "Application Status" tool.
Eligibility workers and community partners can use myBenefits to input citizens' data electronically and submit the data to personnel at local social services departments, who determine program eligibility.
"The vision of myBenefits is really to provide a single online site and portal through which low-income working families, low-income individuals in the state and community partners can connect with the benefits, services and the work supports that they need. So it's essentially an e-government hub for human services," said David Hansell, commissioner of the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA).
MyBenefits was conceived as part of an OTDA initiative to help New York align with then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal to expand low-income residents' access to the Food Stamp Program. On June 5, 2007 -- National Hunger Awareness Day -- Spitzer announced the Working Families Food Stamp Initiative, a drive to simplify and streamline the state's application process for food stamps. However, portions of the initiative had to be approved by the USDA before it could get formally under way. That summer, the OTDA began working on the project.
"Within a month, we were busy trying to figure out what kind of solution [we could] bring in or look at in order to support our Working Families Food Stamp Initiative," said Daniel Chan, CIO of OTDA.
The USDA approved the initiative, and on Feb. 4, 2008, Spitzer announced its launch. By then, OTDA had already acquired the ACCESS functionality. Several weeks later, the state had its Web application up and running, which was a crucial step toward increased citizen participation.
You may use or reference this story with attribution and a link to