CAHS year in review: Access Benefits Online

The Connecticut Association for Human Services (CAHS) started the Access Benefits Online (ABO) program in February 2010 to improve access to work supports. ABO is built on two main ideas:

  • To offer quality application assistance for public benefits in Community Based Organizations (CBOs) across the state.
  • A focus on serving hard to reach populations.

Our model is based in the following:

Monitor, Keyboard, and Mouse

  • Many CBOs have built trust within the community.  We rely in this trust to reach out to clients that would otherwise not apply for public benefits.
  • We train our CBO partners so they become a reliable, trusted access point to public benefits, with up to date information, a powerful software screening tool that can check eligibility for 12 public benefits (SNAP, TFA, Husky A, B, C and D, among others )  and good, reliable data to track their performance.
  •  The whole process should be seamless: the application is completed and sent to DSS by the CBO staff.

CAHS has steadily built a network of community partners across the state, from eight CBOs in 2010 to 35 sites this year. 2013 has been a year of growth, thanks to our partnership with the Community Health Center Association of Connecticut. Thirteen community health centers across the state use ABO to screen their clients for SNAP, Medicaid, Husky and other benefits, help them fill their applications and track enrollments. This has greatly increased the volume of clients we serve every month, from 266 screenings/month in 2012 to close to 800 this past year.

In 2013 CAHS and our partners screened more than 9,000 households for benefits covering more than 20,000 individuals. More than 8,000 were referred to DSS to apply for benefits. As the end of September, 3,709 households had been enrolled to at least one benefit, completing more than 6,200 benefit enrollments. ABO partners successfully focused on traditionally underserved groups: 46% of our clients were Hispanic, 17% African American. 28% spoke a language other than English in their household; 39% of them were under 18 years old.

 

Next year CAHS will continue working with our community partners and DSS to further improve and streamline benefit access in Connecticut. The Affordable Care Act will add many people to Medicaid, and CAHS will be there, helping them get the benefits they need.

To that, however, we need your help. Please support CAHS to help us provide these services that low income families rely on and have a better new year. With your donation we will be able to be in more place, help more families, make a bigger difference. And all with your help.

Why CAHS does application assistance

One of CAHS´biggest programs is EarnBenefits Online (EBO).  The basic idea behind EBO is fairly simple: filling the paperwork to apply for public benefits in Connecticut is hard. The Department of Social Services has a staggering amount of forms on their website, most of them fairly confusing. The one application that allows clients to apply for all services (W1E) is an unwieldy 22 page monster with hundreds of questions. For a lot of people in need, this paperwork represents a gigantic entry barrier to the system. The result, a significant amount of families in need that are eligible for services never apply for them.

EBOfocuses on solving this problem. CAHS has build a network of 30 community organizations across the state that provide screenings and application assistance to clients, helping them find out what benefits that should apply for and helping them get the paperwork ready for DSS. EBO, the case management software at the core of the program, screens clients for 12 benefits and populates the necessary applications automatically, greatly speeding up the whole process. We are  currently screening more than 300 households a month, bringing services to hard to reach populations that would have never gone to DSS otherwise.

The obvious question when talking about benefit assistance services is what difference do they make. Are clients more likely to get the benefits that if they applied on their own? Are we reaching people that would not have applied otherwise? A recent study by Betting, Long, Oreopoulus and Sanbonmatsu tries to answer this questions directly using a randomized study.

Their starting point was the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) program, a simple form that helps students find out if they are eligible to receive Federal student loans or grants to go to college. They divided their population in three: a control group that did not receive information about FAFSA,  a group that received  fliers and information explaining the program and finally a test group that received both the fliers and application assistance. After that, they compared the percentage of students that went to college the year after. The results were inmediate:

Grant applications climbed an astounding 40%, while college enrollment went up 23% just because a short conversation with a friendly screener. If we want to increase participation on a specific program it is an incredible return of investment; we are essentially sending 23% more students to college for the cost of 30 minutes of a case worker´s time.

Our experience with EBO is largely similar, although we are still combing through our data. Application success rates compared to regular outreach (passing fliers out) has almost doubled. We are closely working with the Department of Social Services to evaluate program results with more details, but all signs point that the FAFSA experiment´s results are not a fluke. We do application assistance because it works, and it works well, to make sure that the safety net is in place to catch all those who fall behind.

SNAP use on the rise – and what we can do to help

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting map on SNAP use by state, and how it has increased during this recession. Right now 10.9% of Connecticut´s population is receiving Food Stamps, a 7% increase from 2010. As it stands now, SNAP is one of the central components of our safety net, and its use doesn´t look like it will go down anytime soon.

The numbers could actually be even higher if SNAP participation rates were better. Only two thirds of households that are eligible for SNAP benefits actually apply for assistance in Connecticut, a rate that roughly tracks the nationwide average. Lack of information, a convoluted application process and poor access to state agencies contribute to this low adoption.

Part of our work at CAHS is to do outreach in the community promoting SNAP benefits, trying to help the navigate the chronically overburdened, always confusing DSS system. For the past three years we have seen the steady increase of families than need assistance first hand, so we have even expanded our application assistance and outreach efforts by developing and implementing EarnBenefits in the state in cooperation with Seedco and more than twenty community partners. Only in 2011 we have screened more than 5,000 individuals for benefits, filling the applications and referring more than 4,000 to DSS and other state agencies to get the help they need.

Using community partners is a central part of our efforts for one very important reason: getting to hard to reach populations to improve the SNAP participation rate. Local non profits and municipal agencies can reach to groups that either are reluctant to go to a DSS office in a very effective manner. Our focus with EarnBenefits has been working to make access a priority, not just for SNAP, but for other state benefits as well.

You can learn more about the EarnBenefits program and our community partners here. We are currently expanding our network to the Hartford region, so stay tunned for updates.