Tech Success: Software makes for savvier social services in Utah

IT solutions in action

Project: Electronic Resource and Eligibility Product

Agencies: Utah's departments of Health, Workforce Services, Human Services and Information Technology

Goal:The state wanted to replace with a more efficient system its siloed legacy systems used to manage social programs. Officials wanted the new system to let agencies share data about clients who apply for benefits.  

Obstacles:Some of Utah's eligibility systems were as much as 20 years old, so the ushering in of a new enterprise system met with some resistance. Transforming all the programs at once would be expensive.

Solution:Officials began installation of the new system with two programs. As more funds become available, the same framework will be used to install Curam's Social Enterprise Management software for other state-administered programs.

Payoff:Utah is on its way to taking a holistic approach when working with citizens in need of benefits. State officials can better manage social programs.

Curam's Kimberley Williams said Utah wanted to enable the agencies to maintain their differences, but at the same time exploit their commonalities.

Photo courtesy of Curam

Utah over the years developed separate and distinct IT systems to manage its social services such as Medicaid and Food Stamps. One problem with such a broad palette of systems, however, was that it forced families to separately navigate each program when applying for benefits.

The state in 2001 launched a transformation project called the Electronic Resource and Eligibility Product (eREP) to automate and integrate several of the state-administered assistance programs.

Curam Software of Dublin, Ireland, was brought in for the project to install its Social Enterprise Management software, said Kimberley Williams, Curam's vice president of global marketing.

"Utah officials felt they needed a solution that could accommodate not just the siloed, single programs like child welfare or Food Stamps, but rather an architecture and application that could support multiple programs," Williams said. "They wanted to enable the agencies to maintain their differences, but at the same time exploit their commonalities." Essentially, a family's information should need to be entered into only one system to determine all benefits for which it is eligible.

The new eREP system also had to let state officials better manage the often federally funded programs, said John Polakowski, Curam's vice president of professional services for North America.

A study done at the start of the project revealed that the legacy systems did not provide state officials with all the tools and data they needed to effectively run the programs, Polakowski said.

Utah is not alone in its need to convert IT systems of state-run social services, said Sterling McCullough, lead partner for IBM Corp.'s family and workforce services practice. IBM was the systems integrator on the Utah project.

"The problem we're facing in the state and local government space stems from the fact that federal cost allocation rules -- and how they force you to silo your funding -- results in systems that are siloed," McCullough said.

States have known for years that you get better service when agencies share information.

However, it has been only in the last five years that the technology to install that kind of system has been available, McCullough said.

"What states are saying now is if we can operate truly as a business enterprise, where everybody has access to all the information about a client, we can take a holistic view of that client, and it makes it that much easier to take care of them," he said.

Because Curam is providing support and maintenance, it will help Utah keep up to date with legislative and regulatory changes from the federal government, Williams said.

"When the feds change their rules, those [changes] need to be able to flow through," Williams said. "Under the old systems, those kinds of changes are very, very costly, or it puts the onus on the caseworker to come up with a manual workaround."

With the new system, all the complex federal rules reside on the system, removing that burden from caseworkers, she said.

"Caseworkers will take less time to be trained," Williams said. "It will also provide a mechanism for them to capture more accurate data, and when they can reduce error rates they obviously reduce incorrect payments and incorrect benefits."

McCullough said systems integrators should be aware that with tight budgets, states would not have the means to overhaul all their social service systems at once. The new enterprise solution should be introduced for one or two programs, adding others as the budget allows.

Also, the organization change required to convert all of a state's social programs at once would be almost impossible to do successfully, he said.

"We say to the customer, 'Which program has enough money to bring in an enterprise solution first?' " McCullough said. "Then you can let all your other areas of business add to it once the framework has been paid for and implemented."

In Utah, state officials are beginning with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and child care programs, Polakowski said. Eventually, programs such as Food Stamps and Medicaid will run on Curam's SEM software.

SEM also is designed to work for employment programs. Wisconsin uses it to manage its unemployment insurance program, and the United Kingdom's Department of Workers and Pensions also uses it, Williams said.

SEM has three layers. The first is a framework that includes common business processes and data structures, she said.

The next layer comprises standard business processes used by an agency regardless of its mission, including delivering benefit or insurance claims, or applicant screening.

The final layer is the specific business applications that the system runs.

As applications are developed and refined, other states can use them, IBM's McCullough said.

"We didn't have any particular welfare eligibility assets to bring to the table in Utah, so we built them all," he said. "When we go to the next state that wants a welfare application, we will have a significant chunk of that application already in our pocket."

The transformation in Utah has been successful so far, and officials are moving forward in installing the system for other state programs.

If you have an innovative solution that you recently installed in a government agency, contact Staff Writer Doug Beizer at dbeizer@postnewsweektech.com.

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