Project Tennessee's simplicity is part of its beauty. By plugging into Tennessee's mainframe-based benefit database, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has cut by weeks the time needed to complete a client's file and get entitlements in the mail. Using the database, SSA employees in the state can see if an applicant is receiving state funds, such as Workers' Compensation, which could affect Social Security payment levels. They can also access certain state records, including birth and death certificates, unemployment compensation and other state payments, from the state's Clearinghouse Database. Having about 600 SSA workers in Tennessee connected to the database affects clients because their files can be "adjudicated" quickly, said Paul Swanenburg, chief of SSA's Data Exchange Branch, based in Baltimore. Applicant files are often completed in a day because necessary data can be collected in minutes. "The value is the client's," he said. "It helps the client get faster turnaround because we have the document right there" on the screen, he said.
The 30 Social Security field offices, like all SSA offices around the nation, are connected with databases in Baltimore via high-speed data lines. This allows other states access to Tennessee data second-hand through the main SSA computing center.
The database connection also works in reverse. Tennessee employees can access the SSA database in Baltimore via high-speed lines to see if a state-aid applicant is receiving entitlements.
An applicant's total income, including benefits from government sources, is the area where most inaccuracies occur when the client applies for another program, said Joe Browning, director of information systems in the Tennessee Department of Human Services. The state needs to see if a person is getting benefits from other sources in order to get a true picture of their income, he said.
The mainframe in Baltimore is programmed to know what terminals are allowed to access Tennessee data, and the state's database is programmed to know which terminals have access to certain data. Project Tennessee started last year and will likely continue.
While exchanging information on program participants is nothing new, speed and efficiency are welcome developments. Not so long ago, SSA employees went to Tennessee offices and dug through paper files to verify a client's entitlement eligibility.
SSA case workers would also call Human Services Department employees. This created a lot of interruptions for state workers, who sometimes would get phone calls in the middle of a client interview.
This led to placing a terminal in each SSA field office for access to state files. "There was a measurable decrease in interruptions," said Browning.
But last year, the state and SSA made the electronic connection so federal employees could access the data from their desktop. "Tennessee already had screens for its caseworkers," said Swanenburg. "And they need the same information as we need."
But the new arrangement has been a two-way street. It wasn't very long ago that Tennessee would send paperwork to Baltimore for processing. Later, batch files were sent out. But now, state workers can access the SSA database directly, which speeds the processing of client files. "It reduced the turnaround," Browning said. "And our workers don't get interrupted as much as before."
SSA paid the state $15,000 for the first year of the project. The reciprocal agreement will be evaluated by the state next year to "see what we should ask the Social Security Administration for," Browning said.
SSA is looking at similar connections in other states, but a lot of it will depend on the amount of automation of particular records a state already has. With some states, it may just be a matter of working out legal issues such as personal privacy and security before an agreement is made.
SSA recently created a working group with five Social Security members and five state representatives to look at how state and federal agencies can work together for information exchanges like Project Tennessee.
A basic issue with SSA, Swanenburg said, is protecting personal privacy if the administration allows online access to its records, which would include who is getting what kind of benefits.
SSA has been working for a number of years on reengineering projects, including reciprocal agreements like that with Tennessee. Swanenburg said the agency is under pressure because administrative support is being cut as Congress attempts to shrink the federal budget. The agency is also racing to reengineer operations before baby boomers begin retiring in large numbers early next century.
Tennessee, meanwhile, is continuing to work toward improved customer service. The state's welfare automation, or FAMIS system, is paperless and all records are kept electronically, Browning said. Another ongoing effort involving several levels of government is offering services at one location. Veteran's Affairs, which disburses some federal entitlements, needs information on a client's income, including state benefits. They recently finished a pilot with Tennessee similar to Social Security's. The VA is evaluating where to go from here, and Browning said the federal agency may look for a partner, such as U.S. Health and Human Services.
Project Tennessee represents a push to eliminate redundancy and improve the sharing of resources between governments whenever possible. Government has been compartmentalized for a few generations, but the walls are coming down. "We've gone a long way to tear down barriers and boundaries," Browning said.
The Social Security Administration is preparing to pilot videoconferenced client interviews using the Iowa Communications Network, which should speed claims processing and save clients from traveling across the rural state for interviews.
Videoconferencing equipment is already in high schools and other locations around the state as part of the Iowa Communications Network. SSA videoconferencing centers will be set up in a Des Moines office, as well as several other locations.
Using videoconferencing, a client will go to a network access point and will be video linked to the case officer rather than participating in a telephone interview or traveling to the claims office. The case officer will have the client's medical records and other information, such as what benefits he or she is receiving.
The video link can enable the hearing officer to see the disability in some cases, said Bud Nolker, an SSA regional public affairs officer. "It also gives members of the public the chance to see who is deciding the claim."
It will also help speed decisions, Nolker said, because further appointments can be made on the spot, without playing phone tag or corresponding back and forth. And any missing paperwork may be addressed right there, or at least communicated immediately to the claimant.
The network will also be used for appeals before administrative judges when claim denials are contested. Usually, judges need to travel in their regions, hearing cases. But videoconferencing will save travel by both the judge and the contestant because each could go to the nearest videoconferencing center.