Virginians in need of public assistance can now file for benefits online from the comfort and privacy of home.
The state launched CommonHelp, a self-service website that allows residents to apply for benefits, check on the status of applications or renew for assistance electronically. The system saves them the hassle of having to travel to a social services branch office to do paperwork and speeds the process of eligibility determination.
Developed in tandem by Deloitte and Virginia technology and social services staff, the site went live earlier this month. CommonHelp took approximately 18 months to build and can be used by citizens to apply for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, child-care services, energy assistance, food assistance and some medical assistance.
“Virginians can now apply for our services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from their homes, libraries, schools or anywhere the Internet is available to them,” said Virginia Department of Social Services Commissioner Martin D. Brown in a statement. “For some of our most vulnerable citizens, including the disabled and seniors, online services will make it easier to screen and apply for assistance.”
In an interview with Government Technology, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources William A. Hazel said the change was necessary due to aging back-end processing systems and a huge uptick in the number of people applying for benefits the past few years.
Hazel explained that three years ago, approximately 600,000 people were enrolled in Medicaid. But with the difficulties brought on by the recession, that number is now roughly 960,000. In addition, eligibility determinations have skyrocketed, with more than 1.2 million being done last year for Medicaid and another 1.1 million for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
But as the applications have increased, the budget for staffing, benefit eligibility determinations and other related tasks has not. Hazel said the situation has increased the amount of time customers have to wait for their eligibility to be verified and a backlog of work on staff that turns into error rates on applications.
In 2009, the percentage of errors on a Medicaid eligibility application was 16 percent — pieces of information were missing, applications were incomplete, etc. That drove the decision to create CommonHelp.
“We were faced with the thought that we had to have a more permanent solution to provide better access to citizens and reduce the eligibility application [error] rates,” Hazel said.
“This ultimately is not simply about eligibility determinations,” he added. “It's about better case management and providing a higher quality service and being able to measure the results of the services we provide.”
Deloitte's involvement in the project began years ago. The company was originally brought on by the Virginia Department of Social Services to build a website so that residents could apply online for child-care benefits.
But as the Department of Health and Human Resources decided to integrate its siloed systems and transition to service-oriented architecture — a collection of Web services and technology components that can help connect disparate systems — the initial child-care project was expanded.
Deloitte used the original technology it developed for a similar project in Michigan and adapted it to fit Virginia's needs.
Virginia staff was also a big part of the portal’s development. The language used on the website was vetted through test audiences to ensure words were understandable, and social service workers were consulted so that the system was intuitive even to users not familiar with computers.
Early feedback has been promising. According to Hazel, Fairfax County went from a 21-day wait for determining eligibility of SNAP benefits to now in some cases a phone interview for that determination is made in the minutes following an application being submitted through the system.
According to Melissa Perdue, assistant director of public affairs for the Virginia Department of Social Services, total development of CommonHelp has cost $10,779,739 as of Oct. 15. That amount includes the Deloitte contract, travel, staff time and training.
The final amount for the project will be determined in early November, after outstanding closeout costs are tallied.
The CommonHelp website is just the public-facing portion of the project, however. The back-end eligibility enrollment system is also going to be replaced. Hazel said a vendor should be selected and ready to begin the work in November, with a target of having the system at least partially replaced and online by Oct. 1, 2013.
Eligibility system replacements don't always go as planned, however. Texas recently completed its own project after an eight-year transition. In that case, Texas had to bring in Stanley Stewart — who oversaw and guided Michigan's eligibility system replacement — in order to get the Texas effort back on track.
Hazel said Virginia is already looking at its business processes and roles and getting that transitioned to computer code in anticipation of the project. He added that by doing the public website development first, the state Department of Health and Human Resources “learned an awful lot about managing a technology project” and had started the necessary preparatory work.
In addition, Hazel revealed that long-term plans for the system include finding a way to make CommonHelp available to corrections facilities so that prisoners getting released have an easier time transitioning back into society. The state also hopes to connect CommonHelp to its Homeless Information Monitoring System and the Virginia Department of Veterans Services to help servicemen and their families.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.