WASHINGTON, June 8, 2017 - The potential, but also the pitfalls, of new technologies to streamline the delivery of SNAP benefits was highlighted at a hearing of the House Agriculture Nutrition subcommittee, which hosted witnesses from technology companies, the Commonwealth of Kentucky and New York City as it gathers information in preparation for the 2018 farm bill.

Afterwards, the panel’s chairman, Glenn Thompson, R-Pa. (pictured above), called the testimony “very helpful” as members work towards reauthorization of the nutrition title of the 2018 farm bill, which Thompson said could be introduced this fall, based on conversations he’s had with Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas.

“There are things I think we’ll explore a little further,” Thompson said, but “nothing specific in terms of legislative language.”

President Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018 came in for criticism at the hearing, most pointedly from ranking Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, who said the proposed cuts of $193 billion over 10 years were both “reckless, and, in my opinion, heartless.” SNAP benefits cost almost $71 billion in FY 2016, and are by far the biggest part of USDA’s budget. While paid for by the federal government, SNAP benefits are administered by the states.

McGovern also warned of the limits of technology, saying that “Not everybody has access to the technology we’re talking about here today. (Information technology) should not increase hunger, it should help alleviate it,” he said.

Vickie Yates Brown Glisson, secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said her state ran into problems almost from the moment it implemented its “benefind” Information Technology system, designed to streamline eligibility and enrollment determination functions for a health benefits exchange and for all state-administered health and human services programs.

The Integrated Eligibility System (IES) the state implemented offers numerous benefits, she said, such as allowing one application for programs like Medicaid and SNAP. Problems arose, however, when the system started up in early 2016.

As an example, “Our new system was designed to ping the Federal Incarceration Database to determine whether a household member was currently incarcerated and, therefore, ineligible for benefits,” she said in her testimony. The state’s already existing system was working as designed, but because of “highly inaccurate” information, “tens of thousands” of people received “erroneous letters” cutting them off from benefits during the transition to benefind.

“These letters great caused confusion and panic among our members, who flooded our call centers and our lobbies,” Glisson said, forcing caseworkers to spend hours “dealing with the fallout.”

“This was on top of the increased case load associated with the system conversion,” she said.

Another problem involved the different policies followed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). “CMS allows contractors to assist with applications while FNS does not,” she said.

“We have hundreds of contractors available who can assist with Medicaid eligibility applications and give information about Medicaid application status but who are prohibited from using the exact same information to assist with SNAP applicants,” she said. “Benefind automatically determines eligibility for Medicaid if all of the information is entered and verified,” but cannot use that same information to determine SNAP eligibility if it is entered by a contractor, because FNS policy mandates that only merit employee case workers can process SNAP eligibility applications.

“Benefind was intended to determine eligibility for all services, including SNAP and Medicaid with one application,” she said. “This FNS policy, however, requires duplication of efforts and has impeded the efficiencies expected of the system.”

Glisson and subcommittee witness Steve Mathison, senior vice president of network relations at First Data Corporation, recommended that FNS eliminate the restriction to allow non-merit employees to help with applications.

Glisson said most of the issues that complicated the new system’s introduction have been resolved, but they “could have been avoided altogether had proper planning and oversight procedures been enacted from the beginning.”

Lauren Aaronson, assistant deputy commissioner for New York City’s Human Resources Administration, said the city is well on its way “to achieving the two primary and equal goals of our modernization efforts – improved customer experience and optimized operational efficiency.”

Using an online portal called ACCESS HRA, SNAP recipients and other city residents who receive benefits through the Human Resources Administration can get information and submit applications anywhere they can access the internet. They also can choose to receive text messages when their SNAP recertification period begins.

“This portal allows clients to create an ACCESS HRA account to gain access to over 100 case-specific points of information in real time, including application and case statuses, upcoming appointments, account balances, and documents requested for eligibility determinations,” she said.

“As of May 31, 2017, there are more than 300,000 HRA online accounts for SNAP households, and we receive over 33,000 submissions each month,” she said.

The city also set up a call center with the goal of recertifying SNAP recipients over the phone so they don’t have to go to a physical location. In October 2015, before the call center was launched, only 52 percent of SNAP recertification interviews were completed by phone. “We now have reached as high as 76 percent,” Aaronson said.

The city received a USDA grant to develop a mobile app for SNAP recipients, which has been downloaded more than 110,000 times since its launch in October 2014. “Though the app allows clients to utilize their mobile device to get access to much of the same information that is available on the web portal, it also allows clients to use the camera to capture and submit images of SNAP and Cash Assistance eligibility documents,” Aaronson said.

Efforts to reduce SNAP fraud using technology also were discussed at the hearing, though Thompson said at the hearing and afterwards that fraud rates in the program have been low and that he anticipates getting some good data from New York City on its efforts to reduce fraud in the system.

First Data’s Mathison said in his testimony that “from what we see across our retailer base, the broader government benefit card environment has very small amounts of counterfeit fraud (i.e. stealing the card information from a legitimate SNAP card, reproducing a duplicate of the original card, and using that duplicate to make purchases), because PINs are required for all government benefit cards, including SNAP cards.”


For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com