Promoting Public Benefits Access Through Web-Based Tools and Outreach: A National Scan of Efforts. Volume I: Background, Efforts in Brief, and Related Initiatives. 1. Study Scope


For a variety of reasons, it is virtually impossible to document all of the benefits access efforts now underway. Many are happening at a very local level, and most are constantly evolving. We confined our scan to efforts stakeholders indicated were of most interest for this study. Generally speaking, these entail efforts that span multiple programs and public agencies. We also were mindful of HHS’ interest in assessing how the federal government can capitalize on promising efforts to sustain, replicate, and expand the use of existing web-based technologies. We therefore included efforts that meet the following three criteria:

  • Their primary goal is to help individuals and families apply for programs for which they qualify but in which they do not participate.
  • They facilitate access to at least two federally funded programs that target the low-income population and provide cash or the equivalent to cover some or all out-of-pocket costs for basic necessities.[2] Specifically:
    • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
    • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
    • Medicaid
    • The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
    • Medicare Extra Help[3]
    • The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
    • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
    • Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)[4]
    • The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
    • The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)[5]
    • School meal programs
    • Federal housing assistance programs
    • Veteran’s assistance pension and assistance for homeless veterans programs
    • Federal child care assistance
  • They use web-based technology to interface with potential program applicants.

The shaded boxes in Figure I.1 on page 4 illustrate the types of efforts included in, and excluded from, the scan. Included are three distinct types of web-based technologies that help people apply for at least two federally-funded programs in which they do not currently participate:

  1. Screeners/benefit calculators that provide information to potential applicants
  2. Online applications that must be printed and delivered to relevant program office(s)
  3. Online applications that may be submitted electronically

From the customer perspective, web-based technologies that help people apply for benefits offer several advantages, and also some drawbacks. The first main advantage is that they are available at any time of the day or week from any internet connection (notably, public benefits staff who process applications only during business hours may see the volume of work this creates as a challenge). Second, they can create efficiencies for applicants by using previously-entered application data to drive logical next questions or steps in the application process. And, third, some offer case management information to the customer (such as checking the status of an application or of documents that were submitted), providing them with easy access to answers and reducing the burden on program staff to respond to a deluge of inquiries. Despite these advantages, web-based technologies also present some challenges. For example, some may require users to enter information into the application that is not required by policy or may prohibit users from going backward to adjust their responses after they reach a certain point in the application. And, some may be difficult to navigate, particularly for applicants with limited computer literacy.

Our focus on web-based technologies that help people apply for benefits excludes some important efforts that may warrant further attention and study. For instance, efforts intended to assist individuals and families in maintaining the benefits they currently receive address the problem of “churning,” or cycling on and off key benefit programs. Although this is a longstanding concern, efforts to curb the problem are more or less program-specific and thus at odds with the interest in identifying multiple program efforts. Outreach without the use of web-based technology plays an important role in educating potential applicants and supporting them through their initial interface with public benefits programs. However, these efforts may not be easily replicable or scalable—factors of strong interest to the study stakeholders. For instance, marketing campaigns are typically tailored for particular audiences and time-limited, often because they exploit current events that do not hold public attention over the long term. And, mobile outreach and application assistance often are localized grassroots efforts that are customized to a particular community.[6] Finally, we do not distinctly identify efforts that facilitate eligibility determination and program enrollment. Where possible, however, we do note when integration of web-based benefit application data into program eligibility systems worked in tandem with an effort to interface with potential applicants through web-based technology.

Also excluded from the scan are efforts in the health insurance arena that are related to the ACA. The act requires states to “develop consumer-friendly application processes for Medicaid and CHIP, to coordinate across them to enable seamless transitions, and reduce the burdens of application and renewal by minimizing the up-front information and documentation required to establish eligibility and instead developing procedures that tap available data from other sources” (Kaiser Family Foundation 2010). To the extent that states are attempting to comply with this mandate by changing their Medicaid application and renewal process, the application and eligibility determination process in other key programs could also be affected. Although documenting states’ progress in this area is beyond the scope of this study, the operational context of the efforts that are included in the scan is critical to consider in assessing their implementation, utility, and replicability. For this reason, we will collect information on the status of health care reform for a subset of the efforts in the scan during the in-depth case studies of those efforts.

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