Tag Archive for Assistance

Florida, LexisNexis Partner to Combat Public Assistance Fraud

Florida, the state with the highest per capita identity theft complaints, is experimenting with a new way to weed out potential fraudsters in its public assistance programs. If the federal government concludes that the program meets a civil rights review, then the model could spread to other states soon.

Florida is working with LexisNexis, a private company known for its digital archives of newspaper articles and legal documents, to pilot an automatic online identity authentication system for three types of public assistance: Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) currently receives 90 percent of public assistance applications online, which entails a manual review of applicants’ self-reported information across multiple databases and a follow-up phone call. The LexisNexis model functions more like online financial services in the private sector, where software verifies a person’s identity based on a few items of personal information.

LexisNexis, which won the three-year, $2.9 million contract from Florida, uses a database it’s compiled of 500 million unique American identities to vet applicants. The company cross references a range of biographical information, including social security numbers, residential addresses, incarceration records and death certificates. The screening is automatic and based on four multiple choice questions (randomly selected from a pool of 35 possible questions). If a person fails the test, he or she can apply again through the manual online process, by mail or in person.

“What we’re trying to determine is that the person does exist, that it’s not a made-up identity and that they’re who they say they are,” said Susan Vitale, deputy secretary for DCF.

Last year, Florida recorded 69,795 identity theft complaints, equal to 361.3 complaints per 100,000 state residents, according to a February report from the Federal Trade Commission. About 1.6 percent of nationwide identity theft complaints, the report said, involved government benefits applications.

So far, the Florida pilot program is on pace to save the state of Florida close to $80 million, which is $50 million more than originally projected. If successful, the pilot would mark an important turning point for the detection of waste, fraud and abuse within public assistance. Rather than recouping money from someone already exploiting the system, this would stop it “upfront, at the door and not [let] them in,” Vitale said. “That is a very big paradigm shift.”

The pilot started in seven counties in Central Florida in March, and will go statewide in June. Florida had to request a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to use the automatic online software to screen for identity theft in federal food stamp applications. Federal evaluators are monitoring the pilot to make sure that protected groups under civil rights law, such as minorities, the disabled and people with limited English skills, are not intimidated or discouraged by the automatic online screening. Florida is required to report back to the USDA on the pilot’s impact on protected groups through customer surveys, the tracking of complaints, community feedback and changes to the total number of SNAP participation.

Identity fraud in public assistance is “certainly something that you would want to prevent [and] to the extent that you can make online applications more secure, it’s a good thing,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a policy coordinator and senior analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy. “You just need to make sure that it doesn’t create burdens for people.”

Because the LexisNexis identity screening technology is so new in the world of public assistance, policymakers aren’t sure how it will impact participation rates just yet. Many of the factors that determine whether someone participates in public assistance are related to state economic conditions and the profile of the applicant, such as a person’s age, gender, level of income and education.

But governments can also affect someone’s likelihood of seeking public assistance. Past studies of SNAP by Mathematica Policy Research have demonstrated that people enter SNAP at higher rates if state governments perform outreach, expand their eligibility definitions or ease income reporting requirements. Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo singled out fingerprinting in his State of the State address as a screening method that he believes discourages participation in New York City’s food stamps program. (Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the program, arguing it’s the best way to cut down on fraud.) Whatever the reason, analysis from the Food Research and Action Center suggests that many families living in poverty in urban areas qualify for food stamps, but don’t take advantage of the benefits.

Vitale insists that Florida’s program won’t hamper people trying to access benefits. “The idea here is to detect the fraud upfront,” she said, “but it is not to prevent people from applying.” For her part, Vitale suggested the convenience of applying online and the prospect of shorter processing times might increase participation.

If Florida’s experiment appears to reduce fraud without turning away people who are actually eligible, then other states might copy the program. Vitale said she’s heard from state officials in Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas and Pennsylvania that are all interested getting the same waiver to try out identity authentication. “We’re happy to lead the way,” she said, “and hope that other states will follow.”

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Virginia Launches Online Public Assistance System

Virginians in need of public assistance can now file for benefits online from the comfort and privacy of home.

The state launched CommonHelp, a self-service website that allows residents to apply for benefits, check on the status of applications or renew for assistance electronically. The system saves them the hassle of having to travel to a social services branch office to do paperwork and speeds the process of eligibility determination.

Developed in tandem by Deloitte and Virginia technology and social services staff, the site went live earlier this month. CommonHelp took approximately 18 months to build and can be used by citizens to apply for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, child-care services, energy assistance, food assistance and some medical assistance.

“Virginians can now apply for our services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from their homes, libraries, schools or anywhere the Internet is available to them,” said Virginia Department of Social Services Commissioner Martin D. Brown in a statement. “For some of our most vulnerable citizens, including the disabled and seniors, online services will make it easier to screen and apply for assistance.”

In an interview with Government Technology, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources William A. Hazel said the change was necessary due to aging back-end processing systems and a huge uptick in the number of people applying for benefits the past few years. 

Hazel explained that three years ago, approximately 600,000 people were enrolled in Medicaid. But with the difficulties brought on by the recession, that number is now roughly 960,000. In addition, eligibility determinations have skyrocketed, with more than 1.2 million being done last year for Medicaid and another 1.1 million for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

But as the applications have increased, the budget for staffing, benefit eligibility determinations and other related tasks has not. Hazel said the situation has increased the amount of time customers have to wait for their eligibility to be verified and a backlog of work on staff that turns into error rates on applications.

In 2009, the percentage of errors on a Medicaid eligibility application was 16 percent — pieces of information were missing, applications were incomplete, etc. That drove the decision to create CommonHelp.

“We were faced with the thought that we had to have a more permanent solution to provide better access to citizens and reduce the eligibility application [error] rates,” Hazel said.

“This ultimately is not simply about eligibility determinations,” he added. “It’s about better case management and providing a higher quality service and being able to measure the results of the services we provide.”

Deloitte’s involvement in the project began years ago. The company was originally brought on by the Virginia Department of Social Services to build a website so that residents could apply online for child-care benefits.

But as the Department of Health and Human Resources decided to integrate its siloed systems and transition to service-oriented architecture — a collection of Web services and technology components that can help connect disparate systems — the initial child-care project was expanded.

Deloitte used the original technology it developed for a similar project in Michigan and adapted it to fit Virginia’s needs.

Virginia staff was also a big part of the portal’s development. The language used on the website was vetted through test audiences to ensure words were understandable, and social service workers were consulted so that the system was intuitive even to users not familiar with computers.

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