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Lessons from COVID-19 on rebuilding eligibility processes

The rollercoaster ride continues for state and local governments charged with administering the social safety net. How will COVID-19 impact services going forward? Will unemployment claims keep rising? Will programs like SNAP and TANF become strained? Can service demands be met when staff can’t be on site?

Now there may be a further reckoning for state programs that have been waiving in-person interviews to get benefits to people quickly and safely. While temporary shortcuts to expedite eligibility were allowed under the CARES Act — and have long been permitted under waivers for SNAP (at least until recent USDA reversals) — we expect a swift “return to normal eligibility rules” that emphasize program integrity. Add to that an influx of new claims and applications — with the same workers in many states determining eligibility for multiple programs — and you have a perfect storm for backlogs and delayed benefits. Buckle up.

A way to navigate it all

Right now, there’s an opportunity for state and local governments to wrestle back control of overwhelmed eligibility processes, reimagine what the new normal needs to looks like, and reinvent a post-pandemic model of government — one that’s more accessible and easier to understand, yet doesn’t compromise the program and financial integrity processes that good governing demands.

Since the beginning of COVID-19, Maximus has been pointing the way forward. Drawing on 45 years as a trusted partner that understands the challenges of diverse populations, we’re addressing today’s most urgent problems, providing effective solutions to programs unaccustomed to using outside resources.

And the verdict is in

Over the past seven months, contracting has emerged as a proven model to support effective implementation of state unemployment insurance programs — a model that can apply to SNAP, TANF, and other programs, too.

In February, exactly zero state unemployment programs had engaged outside partners to perform services such as claims filing, processing, verification, fact-finding, and adjudication support. Today, with a green light from the Federal Office of Personnel Management and flexibility supported by the CARES Act, at least 37 states — both Democrat and Republican — have embraced these extended partner relationships.

It’s not hard to see why. With Maximus assisting, unemployment programs have been able to add:

  • Scalability and capacity they previously lacked to respond to surges in claims
  • Flexibility and accountability to better meet the needs of the adults and families they serve
  • Resources they can maintain as long as needed, then scale down

While it’s true that unemployment programs have unique requirements, their objectives in determining and documenting eligibility mirror other benefit programs. Maximus offers a breadth of government expertise to help all types of state and local programs navigate uncertainty.

Ease, accessibility, and accuracy

Today’s COVID-related surges have exposed various eligibility shortcomings in government programs — and the need for qualified partners to help address them. With gaps in budget, staffing, technology, and customer experience, programs are struggling to get the right benefits to the right people in a timely manner. Drawing on our partnerships with dozens of state and local agencies, Maximus has developed the speed, agility, and operational best practices to meet these challenges head on.

Ease of use. Many people today are first-time users of government services. They bring with them expectations about ease, timeliness, and efficiency that may be difficult for government to meet, especially now due to COVID-19. By making requirements and processes simpler to navigate, and information collection seamless, we can head off frustration. And that, in turn, can reduce repeat calls that overwhelm program systems and workers, and negative headlines that demoralize staff and administrations.

 

Accessibility. In a socially distanced environment, it’s critical to make services accessible on the people’s terms, which means virtually and electronically rather than in-person. That means shifting to virtual chat, mobile apps, and other services available over extended business hours. Partnering with us lets you quickly add or reallocate resources and reengineer processes to get it done.

 

Accuracy. As mentioned, pausing or relaxing eligibility rules and standards is not likely to be an option for state governments in the future. Engaging a partner with Maximus’ expertise enables you to conduct reporting, timely interviews, and other activities that keep benefits flowing to families and ensure compliance with federal financial and program requirements.

As state budgets become tighter, engaging an experienced partner may also offer the best ROI by ensuring compliance with metrics tied to federal matching funds. In addition, with the federal government implementing efforts to ensure CARES money has been distributed appropriately, partnering can help you address backlogs and verify eligibility determinations efficiently, and prevent the potential for federal claw-back of COVID funds already distributed.

 

Ready for an uncertain future ahead

With the need for eligibility services likely to increase – and a return to normal practices likely to bring new challenges and stresses – many government programs are at a crossroads. As unemployment programs have already shown, the right support can make the ride ahead much less bumpy. It simply requires a shift in thinking – to a new model that recognizes extended partner relationships have become essential to running government programs thoughtfully and efficiently.