States' old systems can't track welfare recipients

WILLIAMSBURG, Va.--States track more than half of all welfare cases
nationwide using systems that date back to the 1970s, according to the Health and Human
Services Department.


Three states use systems first installed in 1972, said an HHS official who recently
detailed the findings of a soon-to-be-released HHS report.


Mark Ragan, director of the Office of State Systems in the Administration for Children
and Families at HHS, outlined the report at last month's meeting of the National
Association of State Information Resource Executives.


The report, required by Congress as part of last year's welfare reform bill, was due in
February and is awaiting release by the Office of Management and Budget, Ragan said.


Although welfare reform limits an individual's benefits to 60 months and requires
states to track income and employment of federal benefits recipients, neither HHS nor any
of the states has the ability to track people to ensure compliance, he said.


There is no reliable way to prevent someone from claiming benefits in one state and
then moving elsewhere and collecting all over again, Ragan said.


The report will recommend that Congress appoint a committee to design what HHS is
calling the Family Assistance Case Tracking System, or FACTS, and appropriate $20 million
to get it started. The report will recommend that Congress require all states to use
FACTS, Ragan said. Now, states do not have to check with one another to verify welfare
eligibility.


The HHS report--based on a survey of the states, the District of Columbia and the two
territories eligible for federal welfare block grants--asked state welfare officials the
age of their systems and their plans for upgrading them. Although only 26 percent of state
systems date from the 1970s, the oldest systems handle 53 percent of the cases, HHS found.


Forty percent of the systems were built in the 1980s, and 34 percent have been
installed in the 1990s, Ragan said. But the newest systems handle only 26 percent of the
national caseload, HHS found.


Nearly 80 percent of states cannot check for people receiving duplicate benefits in
another state. Nearly two-thirds of states are either doing nothing or are still in the
planning stages for the ability to track the 60-month limit, Ragan said.


No one has solved the technical problems of how stovepipe state systems will share or
exchange information. But a speaker from California said he believes work there shows
promise.


Russ Bohart, director of that California's Health and Welfare Agency Data Center, said
his state is trying to consolidate 150 county systems into four systems, each covering a
large cluster of counties. Bohart's staff has identified 3,000 data elements that comprise
a typical case file.


"We found that 200 elements of data could solve reporting and transaction
problems" among the separate systems, Bohart said. He said his agency is building a
data warehouse of just the 200 elements.


The counties will write application programming interfaces to the Health and Welfare
Agency's architecture to retrieve the data and perform the approximately 140
cross-jurisdictional transactions required to track welfare recipients, Bohart said.


California has 6 million welfare recipients, so it has tracking problems similar to
those of a small nation, he said.


"We've created an analogy of four states," Bohart said. "Our model fits
for the 50 states. We've already been working on cross-jurisdictional, cross-technological
sharing," he said.


As to FACTS, Ragan said, HHS has not determined how sophisticated the system should be.


A national online transactional database is the most expensive and difficult option.
The least ambitious option, which probably would not satisfy Congress, would be no system,
he said.


Under this plan, states would self-certify that they track welfare recipients, Ragan
said.


The most likely first step is a batch-oriented file matching system that states update
periodically and would compare cases again, Ragan said.


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