In New York, a social services department aims to go paperless

In New York, a social services department aims to go paperless

Edward Hughes, the assistant welfare management system coordinator for the Onondaga County Department of Social Services, knows exactly how difficult it used to be when a citizen reapplied for Medicaid benefits and original forms had to be found.

“We literally have to pay to have people go over to a building with a truck, find the right documents, pick them up, bring them back, then bring them to the proper people,” Hughes said in a telephone interview. The whole process was expensive, time consuming and highly susceptible to human error.

Located in Syracuse, N.Y., the Onondaga County Department of Social Services provides medical, legal and welfare services to help county residents work toward higher levels of independence. The OCDSS keeps case records for temporary cash assistance (formerly known as food stamps), the Home Energy Assistance Program and Medicaid. In the past, the county kept records in off-site warehouses and had a complicated filing system for finding and retrieving them.

With all that paperwork, the county was paying a significant price for storage, security, temperature control and transportation. Over the last five years in an effort to cut those costs and to make record-keeping much easier, the county has transitioned to a digital system that uses 800 scanners to put records in an easy-to-use database.

“The state runs the whole system that authorizes benefits and tracks cases; a few years back the state started a document image repository that we could scan documents to and save them,” explained Mike Torrick, director of computer systems at OCDSS.

“So we decided to buy our staff the Kodak Alaris scanners," he said. "[A]s they’re working on a case, they can scan the paperwork into our system and we can get rid of the paper record because it’s available electronically.”

 “The major benefit is cost, but the second benefit is the document retrieval time.” Torrick said. “Before when we wanted to retrieve a case, we’d have to send a fax over to our warehouse where the cases were, and it would be a two to three day turnaround before the document got into our hands. Now you can just go on the system, look up the document you need.”

Once the images are scanned, they go into the state’s image repository and the paper copy can be destroyed, eliminating the physical storage requirements. In addition to making it easier to retrieve documents for citizens and workers, the system also scans related personal documents, making it easier for citizens to reapply for benefits.

“If anyone needs to reapply for assistance and we already have their documentation, birth certificate, Social Security card ... scanned into the system, we don’t need to ask for that again when they reapply,” Torrick said.

While scanning personal identification records may raise privacy issues with some citizens, Onongada County has taken serious precautions to make sure he records will not be compromised.

“We’re on an intranet system called Onenet, we’re not on any Internet domain,” Torrick said. “Our workers log in through an Active Directory, we have unique passwords and we have to change them every 90 days. There’s no access to our system outside our office, and you can’t bring in a laptop and plug it in to our system – you can only get access through our workstations.”

OCDSS is now working on scanning its archival records to put all documents in the database and get rid of the storage facilities.

“The system is working great, and we’re slowly getting to the point where we soon won’t have to rent storage facilities any longer,” Torrick said.

About the Author

Derek Major is a former reporter for GCN.

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