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Delivering Better Data for Social Service Recertifications

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Automated and integrated data helps social service agencies efficiently manage the recertification requirements for the millions of Americans receiving benefits through social safety net programs.

The pandemic has created economic displacement for hundreds of millions of individuals across the country. State and local government agencies were tasked with the rapid expansion of service and aid to individuals seeking assistance from programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Unemployment Insurance (UI) and Medicaid. The strain that the sudden and extraordinary demand for these programs put on IT infrastructures is well-documented. Additional complexities were layered on as new federal benefits were released, each with its own set of policies and guidelines and each requiring adaptations to manual or automated steps in the application and benefit determination process.

Recertifications Will Be a “New, Old” Challenge

Every month a portion of SNAP, TANF and Medicaid participants must submit paperwork and complete an interview to continue receiving benefits when their certification period ends; this is called the renewal or recertification process.

However, under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of March 2020, states were permitted to temporarily adjust their operations to extend certification periods and adjust reporting requirements. This was designed to help manage agency workloads and provide sustained access to these benefit programs for participants during the peak of the crisis. In practice, that meant that recertifications went to the back burner, as the priority for agencies shifted to adapt their technology and processes to accommodate the increase in initial applications for aid.

With those temporary guidelines expiring, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has been tracking states’ progress as it relates to reinstating recertification processes for benefit programs. By Jan. 1, 2022, all states are required to resume and continue monitoring and acting upon regular certification period reviews for benefit recipients.

Automated and Integrated = Minimally Disruptive Return to Recertification

Just as rapid changes to technology infrastructures and software were needed for agencies to quickly and efficiently access the data required to meet new benefit application rules, recertification processes will also benefit from access to timely data. By leveraging data-based services and tools that can be implemented quickly – without requiring significant upgrades to existing state agency technology – states can create a smoother path for returning to recertifications.

While most case management systems are automated to flag when, and for whom, a recertification is required; determining what data is required by the program then collecting and verifying that data often falls on caseworkers to do manually. For example: To demonstrate applicants’ proof of need, information is usually needed to verify income and/or employment. Rather than tracking down pay stubs and manually entering income data, the verification process can be automated and integrated, lessening the burden on caseworkers. Which can also enable caseworkers to process additional applications faster, or dedicate more attention to more difficult determinations.

This is where IT teams can help drive meaningful improvements to deliver better data for the unprecedented amount of recertifications expected in the next year. Leveraging APIs to automate the delivery of, or access to, needed data can help speed up recertifications for caseworkers, enabling a more efficient process than time-consuming, manual lookups that potentially open the door to human error. While automation is needed, integration is ideal.

Current income and employment information is automated and available through commercial verification sources, the largest and most comprehensive of which is The Work Number® database. In 2020, more than 3,000 state and local social service agencies used automated data from The Work Number to verify income, which helped improve their ability to quickly provide aid to qualifying individuals in need, while protecting program integrity.

While automation is an essential first step in improving the recertification process, integrations take this a step further, helping agencies further realize efficiencies in their processes. In some instances, without integrations, for example, caseworkers may still need to manually record information accessed from The Work Number in their own benefits platform, creating a “swivel chair” effect of back-and-forth data retrievals and entries.

“Flipping the switch” to turn recertifications back on will almost certainly cause stress for agencies; but using APIs to integrate, not just automate, data sources into case management platforms can help keep agencies from getting mired in backlogs. By using APIs to quickly and efficiently integrate automated systems and existing benefits platforms, technology teams can put more comprehensive and timely data into the hands of caseworkers. All while enabling them to make redeterminations more quickly and potentially minimize backlogs.

One state health and human services agency that already had an automated process with The Work Number service, recently worked to integrate the service into its existing benefit processing system. Using a focused approach, The Work Number APIs and a third-party systems integrator, the agency was able to deploy a new, secure API integration between the two systems, accomplishing integration in less than four months. As a result of the integration, the agency saw both a lift in number of cases processed, as well as a reduction in the time it took per renewal, setting them up for better success to manage both the initial need for benefits and the upcoming return to recertifications.

System-to-System Adds Additional Benefits – and Proactive Results

Some states are proactively warning residents of the impending changes that will require program participants to resume a more formal application process, including a return to consistent recertifications. A system-to-system integration, like that of the aforementioned state health and human services agency, can further help improve efficiencies by automating recertification reviews.

Technology collaborations that leverage APIs to integrate third-party data and existing systems can also help agencies proactively support individuals in need. Such system-to-system integrations can accommodate proactive alerts for “life changes” that may impact eligibility or benefit level, such as a new job or a reduction in job hours. This kind of proactive case management with a system-to-system approach and service like The Work Number helps remove the burden on caseworkers to audit all recipients, and instead lets technology take the lead on a relatively unmanageable task in times of high demand. By proactively noting when an individual or family needs additional assistance, social service agencies can use technology as aid to better manage program integrity and provide more timely assistance to their community.

This near-instant access to timely data can make a real difference in benefit recertifications. Consider an analysis of 2018 income data from Equifax, which showed that the median monthly income of individuals changed as much as 20 percent month over month — and income volatility has only increased since the onset of the pandemic. Even in that short time frame, those shifts are meaningful to individuals applying for aid and those who request extended benefits through recertification of eligibility. When incorrect or outdated data is used to make a decision, it creates increased workload across multiple departments and functions, triggering investigations and additional fact-checking, delaying payments to constituents and opening the door to potential improper payments.

Research from Equifax shows that with a system-to-system integration that utilizes automated, continuously updated payroll information, social service agencies have been able to double the caseload per case worker with greater confidence in determinations and lower operational costs. Timely data is the core of this system; caseworkers get reliable and updated information, both from applicants and the sources against which the self-reported data is checked.

By harnessing the power of commercial data and APIs to enable automation and integration, technology teams can significantly improve efficiencies, helping agencies improve recertification processes and continue providing benefits to those in need.