Accessing Benefits Online Easier Said Than Done

Accessing Benefits Online Easier Said Than Done

People who surf the net to find information about their state's welfare program and other social benefits may find themselves adrift in confusing Web sites that don't always deliver.

All 50 states use Web and Internet technologies to provide basic information about state welfare, unemployment and other social safety net programs, but only a few states, such as Pennsylvania and Washington, provide "one-stop shopping" that connects citizens to everything for which they may qualify.

"There's a lot of promise and potential, but of course not a lot of money right now" for states to develop Web sites that provide people with the information they want quickly and easily, said Elise Richer, a family policy expert at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), a think tank in Washington, D.C. "It's a matter of states realizing the Web site is not some little add-on anymore," said Richer, who authored a January report that looked at online benefit systems.

Providing Internet access to government services can save time and often money for both the state and those seeking information about benefits, experts said. Texas, for example, saved about $35,000 and 800,000 minutes of 1-800 calls that unemployed workers did not make asking about unemployment insurance after the state put that information online, said Mark Struckman, research director at the Center for Digital Government. The center is a for-profit research group based in Folsom, Calif. that provides technology services to public and private organizations.

But the challenges can be daunting. The cost to make benefits available online can total hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, Struckman said. Plus, many social programs have complex eligibility requirements that require extensive documentation that can be difficult to provide online, such as providing pay stubs or employment records.

States also must figure out how many of the people they are trying to serve actually have easy access to the Internet and if these people know how to use it. Jim Frech, program manager at the Finance Project, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit research group, said states may be better off if their Web site designs target community and advocacy groups who use the Web site to act on behalf of the recipients, rather than target the recipients themselves.

"I'm a little skeptical about the ability to craft a good user experience that a `family person' could do" alone, he said.

Many states include "online services" on their home page, but some showcase that link more prominently than others. For example, the first link on the Virginia state page tells people to "Get online, not in line" and provides several links for citizens and businesses. Missouri, the "Show Me" state displays "Show Me online services" and "Show Me where to find..." on its state home page.

But allowing folks to go online to apply for health and welfare benefits is proving tricky for states. "It's pretty rare at this point whether someone in the public, sitting at their computer, could actually apply for [health and welfare] benefits online," said Susan Golanka, a welfare and workforce development expert at the National Governors' Association.

The exceptions include Pennsylvania and Washington, both of which have Web sites that allow people to go to one Web site for various social services. The sites for Pennsylvania and Washington allow folks to apply for health care, food stamps and cash assistance. Both sites are translated in an array of languages, including Spanish, Russian and Cambodian.

Washington calls its site "No Wrong Door," with the idea that no matter which social program a person checks out, the computer system will check to see if the person is also eligible for other related service. Struckman of the Center for Digital Government predicts more states will eventually go this route and "create that front door that is single point of entry to social and health citizens of the state."

Frech of the Finance Project said states may want to look to the federal government's Web site for an example of a comprehensive Web site. "The federal government ... has clearly leapt ahead of the states in terms of their understanding of how to use the Internet well, both as a strategic communication as well as a delivery arm. The states have now fallen behind," he said.

Here are a few hits and misses with other state online programs:

  • Health care: California teamed up with the nonprofit California Healthcare Foundation to sponsor a Healthy Children to allow low-income parents to go online to enroll their children in the state health care plan and Medicaid, the joint federal-state program for poor people. Georgia's PeachCare for Kids is similar.
  • Both California and Georgia health care applications are available in English and Spanish. Neither site, however, is prominently displayed on the state home or health care division Web sites, but instead are found only after clicking through several pages. 
  • Child support: States that allow parents to submit online applications for child support include Massachusetts, New Mexico, South Dakota and Texas, but parents may have hard a time finding the links unless they know where to look.
  • Massachusetts' child support site is within the state's Department of Revenue, while New Mexico's is a link off the state Department of Human Services; South Dakota's information is on its Department of Social Services and Texas has its child support feature on the attorney general's Web site. 
  • Unemployment: Thirty-two states allow folks to go online as soon as they become unemployed to file for their first unemployment check and 14 states plan to go that route, according to a U.S. Department of Labor spokeswoman.

Only three states Hawaii, Mississippi and Vermont have no plans to use the Internet for initial unemployment insurance claims, the U.S. Labor Department official said. States share with the federal government the cost of paying out unemployment benefits, but states are responsible for running the programs.

Some states, like Idaho, prominently display on the state page that unemployment information is available online.

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