Public Benefit Problems

Health and Human Services Commission pilot program for testing new system of enrolling Texans in public benefit programs reveals problems, concerns

The Health and Human Services Commission is hitting the halfway point of a pilot program, launched Jan. 20 in Hays and Travis counties, for testing a new system of enrolling Texans for public benefits like food stamps, CHIP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Medicaid. Born out of the cost-cutting mandates of 2003's HB 2292, the new program would close 99 HHSC offices, replacing them with call centers and online enrollment. These components would seem a welcome change given that under the current system applicants are limited to snail mail or a visit to the nearest HHSC office, but the pilot hasn't proven problem-free.

HHSC, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, and Rep. Elliott Naishtat's office have all received complaints from people who've been bounced back and forth among representatives who can't seem to assist them. In addition, the CCCP worries that those who don't have phone or Internet access might be less likely to apply than before, especially if their nearest HHSC office has closed. "There has to be a balance between the needs of populations who want face-to-face interaction and those who don't," says CCCP Assistant Director Anne Dunkelberg, adding that HHSC is facing daunting staffing issues and technological hurdles. Employees have been quitting their jobs in anticipation of office closings and layoffs, leaving the agency shorthanded during this critical transition period; meanwhile, the new system relies on the rollout of the state's new computer program, TIERS, which itself has been in a prolonged pilot phase and must now catch up with the needs of an online enrollment service it was not originally designed to accommodate.

The biggest worry right now is that the pilot might not reveal all of the program's potential flaws. It remains to be seen whether monitoring by the state and the USDA can keep track of those who fall through the cracks (such as those with limited Internet access) or collect adequate data on why people are denied claims. Some benefit programs, for instance, still require face-to-face interviews, fingerprinting, or signatures before applicants can be approved, though an online application can kick-start the request process; the new in-person/fax/online/phone combination leaves a lot of room for confusion as to which applicants can use which services when, and mistakes – such as missing a deadline – can have serious consequences, from the delay of emergency food stamps for a family in need to the outright denial of an applicant's benefits. Despite concerns, however, the new system's April rollout appears to be on schedule, with statewide implementation to follow in December.

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HHSC2292, Health and Human Services Commission, food stamps, CHIP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, HB 2292, Center for Public Policy Priorities, Elliott Naishtat, Anne Dunkelberg, TIERS, USDA

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