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State Benefit Application Design Tweaks Increase Access

The Minnesota Department of Human Services reports the streamlined online application allows clients to complete the process in as little as 12 minutes, where the average time to fill out the existing form is an hour.

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(TNS) — Three Southeast Minnesota counties — Olmsted, Dodge and Wabasha — are part of a 16-county test for a new online application process for nine state public assistance programs.

"We've been involved from the beginning, here in Olmsted (County)," said Corrine Erickson, the county's director of family support and assistance. "It's been really a very, very positive experience."

When the pilot program for the new MNbenefits application process started in September 2020, Olmsted and Wabasha were among the first four counties. Dodge County was added as part of a pilot expansion in April.

This month, MNbenefits rolled out in more counties, with the system expected to be used statewide by early 2022.

Minnesota Department of Human Services reports the streamlined online application allows clients to complete the process in as little as 12 minutes, where the average time to fill out the existing online application is 60 minutes.

"The last thing Minnesotans facing life's challenges need is a cumbersome, bureaucratic process to navigate," Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead said. "MNbenefits will help people in need get the important services they are eligible for more quickly."

The application, created with the help of Code for America, also allows for state residents to simultaneously apply to all nine Human Services programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Emergency Assistance, Housing Support, Child Care Assistance, Diversionary Work Program, General Assistance, Minnesota Family Investment Program, Minnesota Supplemental Aid and Refugee Cash Assistance.

Erickson said it's a win for people who need state services, and the easy-to-use application process could increase the number of people who are willing to apply.

"We've had over 4,000 MNbenefits applications come through already," she said. "We've been online for several months, so we have already seen some uptick."

Wabasha County has had 168 applications filed through MNbenefits, and Dodge County has had 60, according to Minnesota Department of Human Services.

While counties can include links to the state application on websites and self-help kiosks, Erickson said the big advantage to the new process is that it works with mobile devices, including smartphones.

"Previous applications to public assistance benefits were not built that way," she said. "They weren't built to be mobile friendly and they took tons of time."

Lisa McNally, Wabasha County's financial assistance supervisor, said being able to apply using a smartphone has been appreciated by clients, but she added that staff like the fact that the process is simplified.

"It makes it easier for us to get the benefits out, and it makes it more timely for us," she said.

Erickson said paper applications remain available, but will take longer to fill out and could delay services if mailed, which can take days.

"We get the application within four minutes of them submitting it (through MNbenefits)," she said.

The new process requires applicants to answer questions that are used to generate a digital application, which is sent to the appropriate county.

Erickson said the process allows counties to adopt their own policies when it comes to reviewing applications, rather than requiring new standards, which has resulted in problems with past state-level technology changes.

" Hennepin County doesn't do it the same way we do," she said, noting the various county sizes and organizations would make it difficult for all 87 Minnesota counties to efficiently process applications in the same manner.

McNally said the question-and-answer process also helps ensure applications include all the required information and the resulting document matches the paper applications that have been used for years.

"Workers like that because they do not have to deal with two forms," she said, noting the previous online application's format was different than the paper document.

A growing number of county employees throughout the state are starting to review the new process. The pilot program includes counties of varying sizes throughout the state. Besides Olmsted, Dodge and Wabasha counties, Anoka, Carver, Clay, Cook, Hennepin, Morrison, Otter Tail, Sherburne, Steele, St. Louis, Waseca, Wadena and Wright are part of the initial project.

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwa also joined the pilot in September, and the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and White Earth Nation are expected to be added soon.

© 2021 the Post-Bulletin. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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