electronic benefits for WIC purchases

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

What to look for in digital benefits providers

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 mandates that state agencies offering Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits must implement an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) system by Oct. 1, 2020. While we’re more than halfway to the deadline, many states still have not started the process to make the switch and continue to issue benefits using paper checks. This paper-based system is inefficient not only for users and agencies; it also forces  IT managers to support aging paper-based systems by building workarounds or maintaining legacy equipment.

An outsourced WIC EBT system can deliver major improvements in account management, benefit issuance and benefit redemption. Enrolled citizens receive their WIC EBT card instantly, and lost or stolen cards can be deactivated immediately and a replacement card quickly issued. In addition, benefits can be assigned to cards in real time.

While some states use an in-house system that requires significant development to convert to EBT, most states use a commercially available WIC management information system (MIS) that has EBT capabilities. So quite often, the MIS system only needs a configuration change to issue benefits using EBT rather than paper. When outsourced to a single vendor, the EBT system provides long-term stability and is supported by the EBT processor, which reduces the amount of government IT support required.

In addition to providing more time for state IT shops to focus on their core job responsibilities, outsourcing this type of work to a vendor who specializes in supporting WIC EBT has other valuable benefits. States considering outsourcing should look for the following characteristics in an EBT processor:

Experience with the program. WIC is a unique program, so it’s important for states to use a processor that understands the nuances of implementing a WIC EBT solution. For example, benefits are generally issued in ounces, gallons or containers rather than dollars. Experienced EBT processor scan successfully communicate to WIC program team members because they understand the program and policies that make implementing and administering a WIC EBT solution so challenging.

An EBT processor with expertise and experience in this field is often able to complete tasks faster and more efficiently. For example, EBT processors that have configurable products that meet the needs of the WIC program can handle implementation quickly.

Integration capabilities. It’s also important for an EBT processor to have connections for retailers and third-party processors so states can be added with a quick configuration change rather than having to establish connections and certify that the systems reconcile. Processors should also have certified every major grocery and electronic cash register system available to avoid a lengthy ECR certification process. Finally, having a universal interface between WIC MIS and the WIC EBT system is critical so minimal configuration is needed before interface testing can begin.

Customer service. Look for a vendor that can also take on certain responsibilities, including answering questions from retailers and cardholders that would otherwise go to the government IT manager’s client or the IT group. Ensure that the EBT processor also provides cardholder and vendor portals for customer self-service, handling all such issues for the state.  

Risk mitigation.  Confirm that the EBT processor manages all activities required for the WIC EBT solution, including protection against data attacks, supporting disaster situations and allowing benefits to be issued even if the clinics where the check printers reside are under water, and mirroring redundant backup systems with primary, secondary and tertiary servers in different parts of the country. Using an EBT processor also helps reduce the risk of a state missing the 2020 federal mandate deadline.

While making the switch from paper to EBT requires the coordination of a government IT manager for a short phase, in the long run the outsourcing allows the WIC EBT solution to function more smoothly, and it provides more time for IT managers to focus on their core, more meaningful job activities.

About the Author

Jerry Owens is director of business development for Xerox Public Sector Solutions.

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