Web-Based Benefit Access Tools: Mitigating Barriers for Special Needs Populations. A. Partnerships with Community-Based Organizations (CBOs)


CBOs are local organizations that provide specific types of services to a community or a targeted subset of the community and, as such, are typically well-integrated into and trusted by the community. Some entities that administer web-based benefits access tools partner with CBOs to capitalize on their knowledge of and relationships with their client base. They rely on CBOs to different extents and in different ways, as described below.

Requiring Clients to Receive Assistance from a CBO. Some entities administering web-based benefits access tools require that clients seek assistance from a CBO to use the tool. In this model, the public at large may not access the tool directly; rather, trained staff members at public or private organizations input and retrieve information on a client’s behalf. Staff must have a user identification number and password to access the system, often provided only after they complete a training course on the tool.

EarnBenefits: Requiring Assistance from a CBO

Seedco works with CBOs and other local organizations around the country to screen clients for benefits using EarnBenefits; the software is password protected and may be accessed only by individuals who have received training in the use of the tool. Users (site staff members or volunteers) input client information during a client interview, the system rules engine determines potential eligibility for multiple benefits, and users inform clients of their potential eligibility for identified benefits. In New York City, EarnBenefits operates at several CBOs and one of two workforce centers Seedco manages (Seedco is hoping to bring EarnBenefits to the second one soon). The workforce centers are co-located with the New York State Department of Labor to serve a large number of dislocated workers. EarnBenefits is being used in child care settings in Tulsa and Atlanta; in Memphis, it is being used in child welfare agencies, community health care facilities, and other social service programs.

Offering Clients Assistance from a CBO. Other entities merely offer assistance from a CBO. In this model, anyone with an Internet connection may access the tool at any time and from any location, but clients also may seek assistance from trained staff at CBOs who can help them use the tools. CBO staff can answer clients’ questions about program benefits, provide translation, navigate Internet programs on behalf of clients, or assist them through the process.

Benefits CalWIN: Offering Assistance from a CBO

Benefits CalWIN was designed for self-service use by the public. However, county office or CBO staff may assist clients in completing and submitting applications through Benefits CalWIN. Some county offices have self-service centers in which clients can use public computers to complete online applications. Caseworkers may help clients complete applications, including providing translation services, and may conduct intake interviews immediately, thus speeding up the intake process that traditionally requires clients who come into an office to return for interviews at a later date. San Francisco County uses CBOs in the community to increase use of Benefits CalWIN. The county works with more than 45 CBOs and contracts with 10 organizations to provide clients with assistance using the online application tool, as well as help them schedule interviews with the county office; previously, interviews sometimes were conducted using Skype, a free video chat service that uses a webcam linked to a computer. Skype was particularly important when a face-to-face interview was required. Because California now has a waiver that allows interviews to be completed by phone, webcam interviews currently are not emphasized.

Providing Clients Options Regarding Levels of Support. Although HEA and OBB began as tools accessible only with assistance from staff at a public or private service organization, both are now publicly accessible. The entities managing them, however, continue to coordinate with local organizations to train counselors who can help clients use the tools. In Arizona, HEA has a network of approximately 70 subscriber organizations in 220 locations throughout the state that assist clients with the online tool and can help follow up on cases with the caseworker. Most subscribers are medical providers, but Department of Economic Security (DES) staff have worked with a network of churches to reach out to the Latino community to let them know about the Spanish version of HEA. OBB is available in three models: Counselor Assisted (in which trained counselors assist individuals using the tool), Professional (in which trained counselors use the tool on behalf of clients and serve as their authorized representative), and Self Serve (in which clients use the tool totally on their own). The first two are offered at CBOs and other sites in conjunction with educational outreach to raise awareness of available tax credits and benefit programs. The intermediary organization that operates OBB employs five Regional Coordinators to recruit organizations to become OBB sites in their regions and markets OBB to CBOs in other ways. Many different types of organizations serve as OBB sites, including churches, food pantries, and prisons and prisoner reentry facilities.

Informing a Tool’s Development. Finally, some entities seek assistance from CBOs to inform initial development of their tools with an eye toward addressing at the outset the barriers that their clientele may face. For instance,input from the community helped shape Benefits CalWIN and its precursor, Benefits San Francisco. The consortium developing the tool contracted with 10 geographically and culturally diverse CBOs to participate in the development and use of the tool. CBO staff participated in focus groups and also hosted focus groups that included potential SNAP clients. Input from both groups affected the language and navigation on the website. During development of the eREP system, the Department of Workforce Services (DWS) consulted with a variety of stakeholders to inform the development of the tool. A representative from DWS was assigned as a liaison with CBOs in Utah, provided them with information about the creation of the tool, and gave them the opportunity to provide comments.

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