June 22, 2005
STREAMLINING AND COORDINATING BENEFIT PROGRAMS’ APPLICATION PROCEDURES
By Sharon Parrott, Donna Cohen Ross, and Liz Schott
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PROJECT ON PROGRAM SIMPLIFICATION AND COORDINATION
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Project on Program Simplification and Coordination conducts research and analysis on how benefit program rules can be simplified and better integrated across programs. The project also provides technical assistance to states and policy analysts interested in pursuing simplification and alignment strategies in their states.
The project focuses on the main state-administered benefit programs for families with children — Medicaid, SCHIP, food stamps, TANF, and child care — with a goal of reducing the administrative burden of the programs on both states and low-income families.
This report is part of a series designed to describe how states can streamline their rules and procedures in particular areas. Future reports will address simplification and alignment issues related to change reporting rules, verification procedures, and income and asset policies. Reports on online benefit calculators and applications and streamlining the eligibility renewal process can be found at:
The application process is the “front door” through which families must go to obtain benefits such as health care coverage, child care assistance, or food stamps. For families who have never applied for program benefits, the application process is their first point of contact with the state human services system. If the process is simple and transparent, more families will complete it successfully and secure the benefits they need. If, on the other hand, the process is time consuming and hard to understand, some families may never begin the process and others may not complete it.
Processing applications also is one of the main tasks of human service agencies, taking up a significant share of eligibility workers’ time. Streamlining the application process for benefit programs — and reducing duplicative requirements across programs — can reduce caseworkers’ workloads.
The application process typically includes the following steps:
Complete an application form. Families generally can submit an application form either in person at a public assistance office or by fax or mail. Most states have their application forms on state agency websites, [i] and some states — such as Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Washington State, and West Virginia — allow families to apply for at least some benefits over the internet.[ii]
- Discuss application with a caseworker, if necessary. States often require applicants to meet face-to-face with a caseworker before certain benefits can be approved, though some states have begun to make greater use of telephone interviews in some circumstances. Most states — 45 as of July 2004 — do not require an interview (face-to-face or telephone) for children’s Medicaid applications. Some 35 states as of July 2004 also did not require interviews for family Medicaid applications. [iii]
Submit documentation to verify information on the application form. Programs vary in the amount of documentation that must be provided. Non-citizen applicants must provide documentation of their immigration status in all core benefit programs. The Food Stamp Program has additional federal rules requiring that certain elements of eligibility be verified, though most states require applicants to provide more verification than is federally required to reduce quality control errors. Most states have state rules requiring certain elements of eligibility to be verified in TANF, Medicaid, SCHIP, and child care programs, such as family income or residence in the state.
Designing an application process involves balancing a number of competing goals and priorities: reducing access barriers for families, ensuring that eligibility decisions are accurate, effectively utilizing the time of busy caseworkers, and ensuring that families obtain all of the benefits for which they are eligible. For example, a multi-program application can help connect applicants to the full range of benefits available to them, but the length and complexity of such applications can discourage some families from applying.
This report will explore ways that states can design their application forms and procedures in ways that strike a reasonable balance between competing priorities while reducing both the access barriers for families and the workload for state agencies. Most of the options discussed here are most relevant for low-income working families who may be eligible for food stamps, child care, and health coverage through Medicaid and SCHIP but who are not also applying for TANF income assistance.
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[i] Federal food stamp rules require states to post their food stamp applications online, provided the state agency responsible for administering the food stamp program has a website.
[ii] For information on online applications, see “Using The Internet To Facilitate Enrollment In Benefit Programs: Eligibility Screeners And Online Applications,” by Elizabeth Schott and Sharon Parrott, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, December 2004, https://www.cbpp.org/12-14-04tanf.htm.
[iii] Donna Cohen Ross and Laura Cox, “Beneath the Surface: Barriers Threaten to Slow Progress on Expanding Health Coverage of Children and Families,” Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, October 2004, https://www.cbpp.org/10-4-04health.pdf.