What if Determining Eligibility for SNAP Was as Easy as Buying a Book Online?

May 17, 2012

By Helly Lee and Elizabeth Lower-Basch

We live in an age of great technology, when information can be shared instantly. And yet, our current models of determining eligibility for public benefits like Medicaid and heating assistance remain outdated and create multiple barriers for those who need government assistance to meet basic needs. These antiquated systems are less efficient and add up to higher costs for states, including many that are struggling with strapped budgets. It doesn't have be this way, though.

Moving to 21st-Century Public Benefits: Emerging Options, Great Promise, and Key Challenges, a new paper written by Stan Dorn, senior fellow at the Urban Institute and Elizabeth Lower-Basch, senior policy analyst at CLASP, for the Coalition for Access and Opportunity, illustrates how sharing data and basing eligibility decisions on existing information can cut administrative costs, help more families in need of assistance access benefits and strengthen programs.

Currently, millions of needy individuals and families do not receive some or all of the benefits for which they are eligible, and thus go hungry, without health care, or lacking in other basic needs. In many cases, this is due to the complicated and burdensome processes involved in demonstrating that an applicant has met all eligibility requirements and in recertifying this information on a regular basis. These complicated processes also cost public money, as caseworkers must review the application, determine eligibility and ensure that all documentation requested is accounted for. It's not only a long process for caseworkers, but can require applicants to make numerous visits to agencies - requiring time off work they may not have.

This paper describes a new model of public benefit administration that is emerging in selected programs and locations, and discusses how it could be expanded. The model uses modern information systems to lower states' costs for determining program eligibility, lighten applicants' burdens, and strengthen program integrity. Typically, 21st-century eligibility methods use data from external sources to reach out to individuals and families who may be eligible and help them to qualify for need-based assistance, while minimizing the need for caseworkers to review paper documentation. Such an approach offers hope for overcoming the longstanding tension between facilitating enrollment, administrative efficiency and error-free benefits delivery that safeguards program integrity. The paper also discusses the challenges in creating a new model and areas where careful consideration must be taken to protect clients' data and rights.

Moving to 21st-Century Public Benefits comes at an opportune time. Provisions in the health care reform law passed in 2010 require states to modernize systems, share data across programs, and improve the customer service experience. Moreover, states have the opportunity to leverage these changes to improve access to other benefit programs, with significant federal funding.  At the same time, Congress is considering bills that would restrict access to benefits and make it harder for states to coordinate across programs. With the opportunities and challenges before us, now is the time to consider what we really want our systems serving those in need to look like.

Read the full paper: Moving to 21st-Century Public Benefits: Emerging Options, Great Promise, and Key Challenges >>

View toolkit: 21st Century Eligibility: A Menu of Options >>

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