BenePhilly's online tool asks social services applicants for their name, household composition, income and other basic information to determine which benefits they’re most likely eligible for.
In 2020, BenePhilly helped 7,600 Philadelphians enroll in public benefits worth a total of $33 million and an average of $4,000 per household. Since 2008, it has helped more than 125,000 Philadelphians secure more than $1.6 billion in benefits.
But BenePhilly isn’t a government organization. Rather, it is a collection of government agencies, nonprofits and community organizations that use data and technology to help city residents determine their eligibility and apply for benefits. A key to this is an online tool that provides one application for benefits across multiple agencies. The software asks applicants for their name, household composition, income and other basic information to determine which benefits they’re most likely eligible for.
“The technology scans multiple policies and application criteria in a matter of minutes to determine eligibility across a wide range of assistance programs,” according to a case study by Betsy Gardner, a research assistant at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. “The tool is so powerful that BenePhilly’s call center and BenePhilly in-person center employees can connect clients with 19 benefits and submit their applications in half an hour.” That figure does not include time spent completing and submitting the client's applications, according to officials at Benefits Data Trust (BDT), the national nonprofit that developed BenePhilly.
“Different benefits are often administered by different agencies within a state, the applications can be very different, and from the clients’ perspective, they might not be aware of the other benefits or they might just get fatigued of filling out applications,” said BDT's Director of Projects Ryan Lauko.
BDT establishes data-sharing agreements between agencies and organizations – health clinics, for example – to provide BenePhilly counselors with the names of people receiving one type of benefit who would likely be eligible for another. For instance, someone on Medicaid but not the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is likely eligible for both. Counselors can reach out to let them know and help them apply.
“Data-sharing is an immensely powerful tool in closing these gaps in benefits that can be so helpful for people that are very likely eligible for them but just aren’t aware or just face barriers in applying,” Lauko said. “This allows you to identify those gaps … and underserved populations and recognize who is getting help and who is not getting help.”
The agreements go through SOC 2 audits to ensure security and privacy protections, he added.
Applicants can get assistance by phone, at a mobile Benefits Access Unit through the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity (CEO) or in person at eight centers, although those are closed because of the pandemic.
“That data is ingested into our systems. At different points, we might work with different agencies to help them match their data between different silos or different agencies within the governments,” Lauko said, noting that BenePhilly doesn’t handle enrollment, just screening and application assistance that could lead to enrollment.
Gardner, the report’s author, credits BenePhilly’s success to its ability to bridge governmental silos. “It’s a nice mirror back to government agencies to show what is possible if they work on breaking down those silos,” she said.
What’s more, because BenePhilly is a nonprofit, it’s more flexible with technology, she added. “They don’t have legacy systems that a lot of these cities are stuck with, so they were able to create a lot of powerful tech tools…. They’re coming in from the outside and they’re specifically saying in their data-sharing agreements, they’re bringing in specific data that they know that they need and they know how to incorporate it into what they’ve built,” Gardner said.
Founded in 2005, BDT worked with Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Department of Aging and Human Services to establish BenePhilly in 2008, starting with PACE, the state’s prescription assistance program for older adults. In 2014, it expanded to include walk-in centers, more benefits and enrollment support for all ages.
“In Philadelphia, I think it’s really helped us over the last couple of years – decade or so of working with the BenePhilly centers – to have an alternative pathway and to know that not every client can be reached in the same way,” said Conor Carroll, BDT’s Pennsylvania engagement manager.
Today, BDT provides enrollment assistance in six other states: Colorado, Maryland, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Carolina. Since 2008, BenePhilly has helped more than 142,000 Philadelphians secure more than $1.72 billion in benefits.
This article was updated Feb. 9 to clarify that the 30-minute processing time does not include completing and submitting a client's application. Michigan was added to the list of states where BDT provides enrollment assistance, and the total number of Philadelphians helped was updated with the latest figures.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.