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