Reducing Red Tape Shouldn’t Take a Crisis

By Suzanne Wikle

A staggering 33 million people have filed for unemployment insurance in the past seven weeks. Many of the same people will also apply for health insurance through Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act’s Marketplace and nutrition assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or WIC. 

However, at this moment of extraordinary need, many state agencies that oversee these programs that support basic needs have been forced to close their assistance offices because of the COVID-19 public health crisis.

As a result, states have had to rethink many of their processes to handle the sharp increase in applications while adhering to social distancing guidelines. Some have adopted new policies and procedures to simplify the application processes, tearing down many barriers that have hindered eligible people from accessing benefits for decades. Others haven’t been as nimble and responsive to our current situation. As a result, residents of those states have faced enormous hurdles applying for benefits

In recent weeks, some states have made changes in policies that advocates have requested for years. For example, some advocates have repeatedly argued to their state administrators that SNAP applicants do not need to provide verification of terminated income – literally proof from an employer that a job ended (in most cases, states can electronically access wage information showing elimination of income). One state balked at this request for years, but when faced with the COVID-19 crisis, state administrators quickly made the change. 

Massachusetts advocates have previously asked the state to create an online application—in addition to a paper form—for cash assistance under TANF. Such an application was quickly posted at the beginning of the COVID crisis. California last week announced it would temporarily suspend requiring unemployment insurance recipients to report each week on their job search activities, which has reduced the burden on the system so that new applications can be processed. The federal government has also taken steps to reduce barriers and red tape, including allowing states to temporarily eliminate interviews for SNAP and allowing people to apply for WIC without a face-to-face meeting. 

On the flip side, it’s also important to understand how these policy and operational changes affect marginalized communities. Without offices to walk into, how are people with no internet access or ample cell phone minutes supposed to apply? Are language interpretation services available widely enough? Does the state allow phone applications for all programs? Unfortunately, we know that the answers to these questions are not satisfactory, and too many people are unable to access critical support programs during this time of extreme need.

All of these examples raise an important question: Why does it take a crisis of this magnitude to finally to remove decades-old red tape and other barriers? While unprecedented times call for unprecedented responses, many of these pandemic-inspired policy and operational changes hold great value at all times. Even when our nation is not in crisis, people across our nation face personal and family crises when they apply for these benefits. 

A Focus on Administrative Advocacy Pays Off During the Pandemic

For the past five years, CLASP has been supporting state advocates working on this very issue – simplifying and improving the application process for benefits, with a particular emphasis on Medicaid and SNAP. While none of us tackled this work with a global pandemic in mind, the changes sought by state advocates have positioned their states to better respond to today’s crisis.

The changes they’ve sought include eliminating unnecessary paperwork, increasing their call center functionality and capacity, providing mobile apps for document submission, and investing in user-friendly online application systems. In one state, advocates spent several months detailing with the state each verification (document or piece of paperwork) applicants need to submit for SNAP. The result: a consensus that some verifications were not necessary, and the state stopped requiring them. Now that state has fewer pieces of paperwork to process and applicants face fewer barriers. These are beneficial changes every day, but especially now as the volume of applications increases so dramatically.

In another state, advocates worked diligently when the state was developing a new mobile app to ensure that people would be able to submit documents through the app (i.e. take a picture of their pay stub and send it to the state agency). Another advocacy success was increasing capacity at a call center to fully complete applications, rather than only begin applications and require follow up with a caseworker on another day. States that made such changes are better prepared to serve their clients, both in the face of a pandemic and every day.

When local benefit offices reopen, which is critically important for many reasons, and application numbers stabilize at more typical levels, we must examine which changes during the COVID crisis have been beneficial and are worth keeping. 

To ensure that everyone is able to access supports when they need a helping hand, we must continue efforts to make application processes as efficient as possible by eliminating red tape and other barriers. The COVID crisis has forced this conversation in many states, but it must continue beyond COVID. By doing so, programs like SNAP and Medicaid will be able to appropriately and quickly respond in times of great need, just as they were designed to do by their creators.