Open source software matches benefits to eligible recipients
- By Amanda Ziadeh
- Oct 18, 2016
State agencies can now leverage an open source tool to help ensure that individuals eligible for income-based human service benefits actually receive them.
The software is Benefit Assist, and it was first launched in 2015 by Intuit for that company’s TurboTax users. Benefit Assist sifts through tax information to help determine a person’s eligibility for benefits from programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid and Medicare.
Now, Intuit has partnered with New York City Council Member Ben Kallos and the federal government's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to make its eligibility software free and open source code, according to the company.
When Benefit Assist first launched, Kallos was pushing “automatic benefits” legislation for New York City that requires city agencies to notify residents applying for or receiving any human services benefits about all the programs they qualify for using information the municipal government already has. Besides increasing efficiency and reducing bureaucracy, the bill would expand services to eligible New Yorkers.
“My council district is number one in the city for the number of seniors who are eligible for food benefits who don’t get them,” Kallos told GCN. He said he wants the government to be able to use all of the information it has on individuals to automatically provide the benefits to which those constituents are entitled.
However, commercial systems are expensive, and some states do not have the infrastructure to support proprietary software. As Kallos was researching technology options for his own legislation, he came across Benefit Assist.
“I was completely impressed,” Kallos said. "They were screening 30 million Americans using TurboTax ." He reached out to Intuit and asked if it would consider making Benefit Assist’s rules engine free and open source. Intuit agreed and donated the software to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“The beauty of free and open source software code is that if you think that something is wrong with it or you’d like to improve upon it, anyone has the freedom to make changes,” Kallos said, Adding rules specific to a state’s program is now more easily done, he noted. And now that Benefit Assist is open source, it can also be used as a foundation to build services and tools directly on state websites.
Kallos presented Benefit Assist to CMS so that it could expand on the app and provide states and non-profits with a free rules eligibility engine, baseline software and front end.
“It is a huge step forward in terms of leadership for CMS,” Kallos said. This way, states would feel comfortable using code screened by the government, rather than just by the private sector.
Such concerns were raised last year in a Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service’s memo to SNAP regional directors. Some state agencies were unsure about how to process SNAP applications submitted via Intuit’s Benefit Assist and had questions regarding the validity and legality of the initiative.
For New Yorkers, Kallos is looking to use Benefit Assist to improve the Access NYC online public screening tool. Ultimately, he hopes the state will use the tool to upgrade its Welfare Management System and that other states will begin to engage with the repository and build it out.
Users can explore the Benefit Assist demo, which uses information like name, age, marital status, earned and total income and financial and health factors to search and present possible eligible benefits. The code itself is available on GitHub.
Amanda Ziadeh is a former reporter/producer for GCN.