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New system means big changes for DSS

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By John Barnhart

October 1 brought some big changes for the Bedford County Department of Social Services.

    Prior to that, according to Andy Crawford, the county’s director of Social Services, the department used one eligibility computer system for all the programs Social Services administers.
    “Of course, that system is very outdated,” Crawford commented.
    Crawford said the Commonwealth, with the federal government footing 90 percent of the cost, purchased the Virginia Case Management System (VACMS) that will serve as a platform that systems can be built on.
    The first system built on it was a new Medicaid system, which took effect on Oct. 1.
    “Medicaid is the most complicated program we have,” Crawford said.
    Crawford said the state plans to add two other programs, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)  and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to the new system, but for now Social Services will still use the old computer system for these.
    According to Crawford, most Social Services clients are eligible for more than one program. People signing up for Medicaid usually also sign up for SNAP, TANF or both. This means that his staff must now use two computer systems, rather than one when serving these residents.
    Crawford said that it typically took a staff member between 45 minutes to an hour to enter all the information into the system for a client seeking help. Now, it takes twice as long.
    What’s more, there are bugs in the new system that have to be worked out. These create roadblocks for staff. Once a staff member runs into one of these issues, the staff member has to stop working on that client’s application and submit a trouble notice. The client’s application is then on hold until the computer software problem is fixed.
    “So they are having to keep stacking up cases that are deadlocked,” Sharon Thompson, benefit programs supervisor, stated.
    Even if a staff member does not run into an issue that stops the process, that worker still has to do all calculations manually because the staff member can’t be sure that what is on the computer screen is correct.
    A new computer system always has bugs at first, but Social Services staff are dealing with two other issues they have never encountered before. One is that no training on the new system was available before it went live.
     Thompson said there had always been, in the past, a training program for any new computer systems, but it was different this time.
    “They put it into production and we had no hands-on training,” she said.
    The new system is more complex. When names of family members are entered, the staff has to enter what connection each member has with every one of the others. Each member of a family of four has four connections.
    “It’s trying to figure out who is claiming who for taxes,” Crawford said.
    Thompson noted that the way a step-parent’s income is counted has changed. In the past, a step-parent’s income was not counted when determining Medicaid eligibility for a child for whom he was not financially responsible. Now, it is.
    The other novelty is the fact that Social Services staff have to deal with a new Medicaid policy. Crawford said they have never had to learn a new computer system and a new policy at the same time. The new policy has added a 23rd chapter to the existing 22 chapter Medicaid manual. These are big chapters. Each one is the size of an entire manual in itself.
    It’s a dramatic change.
    “We have to know your tax filing status,” Thompson said.
    Crawford said that income verification used to be done the same way it was with SNAP and TANF.
    “They brought us a check stub,” he said.
    The system links to the IRS, which compares what clients say their income is with their last three tax returns. Thompson said Social Services staff never sees a client’s tax information. The system is supposed to just come back and say whether it matches.
    “The IRS [link] is still a bit of a problem,” she said.
    Another problem comes when they have clients who have not filed tax returns. She said they have another process they have to use for that.

More to come
    There’s more to come. All Medicaid cases prior to Oct. 1, 2013, are still on the old system. Social Services will have to manually transfer each one to the new system. Crawford said that, as of the end of November, his department had 6,500 Medicaid cases. The old system is scheduled to go away in 2015.
    His office will also inherit management of Family Access to Medical Insurance Security (FAMIS). Crawford said this is a program, under Medicaid, for children from families making between 200 percent and 300 percent of the federal poverty level. This program was originally handled at the state level, but local social services departments will get these cases in April.
    “We don’t know how many thousand cases we will get,” Crawford said.
    They also have a lot of people coming in who have gotten bad information. These are adults who think they are eligible for programs that they actually are not eligible to receive.
    So far, Social Services staff has been able to adapt to the changes without slowing down service for clients.
    “We are hanging in there right now,” Crawford said.
    Crawford said he won’t ask for additional staff in this year’s budget. He’s been able to allocate his staff efficiently so that he’s able to cover the work without asking for more employees.
    The only new employee will fill a position unfrozen by the supervisors  last fall. This employee will help clients with computers that will be installed in the Burks-Scott Building’s lobby.
    Crawford said the state wants people applying for benefits to do that online. Clients who do that will then be able to go online to make changes or check the status of their benefits. The online program is called CommonHelp. The “Common” comes from Commonwealth as in Commonwealth of Virginia.
    “You go to CommonHelp to apply for any benefit we offer,” Crawford said, explaining the concept.
    There is a problem with this setup.
    “Of course, a lot of people don’t have computers,” he said. He also noted that the lack of high speed Internet service in Bedford County is an obstacle.
    That’s why he is installing computers in the lobby, and will have a person there to help people use them.
    Crawford said he doesn’t expect elderly clients to make this transition and his staff will work with them.