Tenn. Web tool is ‘one-stop-shop’ for public benefits information

In an effort to determine eligibility for social service programs, the state of Tennessee last week unveiled a Web-based screening tool, focused on helping people find the right assistance, without gathering sensitive information.

FindHelpTN is a centralized source of information for state and federal assistance programs that helps Tennesseans find or apply for more than a dozen social service programs, like Medicaid, CoverKids, and Families First, Tennessee’s TANF program. “We wanted to create a one-stop-shop or TurboTax for public benefits,” Brian Haile, deputy director of Tennessee’s Benefits Administration, said in an interview. “We included federal and state programs, because it’s not always clear, due to federal Medicare rules, who fits where.”

Similar to other state eligibility tools, like Pennsylvania’s COMPASS or West Virginia’s inROADS, FindHelpTN helps those looking for a broad range of assistance, from food stamps and school meal discounts, to home energy assistance (LIHEAP) – not just Medicaid and TANF. But unlike those other state tools, FindHelpTN puts an extra emphasis on anonymity and only getting as much personal information that is needed to determine program eligibility, Mr. Haile said.

“COMPASS in Pennsylvania or inROADS in West Virginia are great programs, designed to help people with the whole process, but the underside is that you have to provide really private medical information.”

According to Mr. Haile, economic conditions in Tennessee have forced more first-time benefits seekers to find help through state aid than in years past. With this in mind, Mr. Haile said the questions were designed to gather information to be used strictly for eligibility purposes – nothing else. “We wanted people to tell us their circumstances, as briefly as possible, and based on their feedback, get them pointed in the right direction,” Haile said.

“Ours was a fundamentally different approach – FindHelpTN is minimally intrusive. We are really trying to target those who are facing this kind of situation for the first time in their life – and it’s that kind of user we were trying to be especially sensitive to.”

Mr. Haile said the project incorporated a robust collaboration with the Department of Human Services, the Bureau of TennCare and the Department of Health for those who would needed assistance from WIC. And the project came together in just nine months. Kansas-based NIC Inc., who runs the state’s .gov portal, helped develop the front end for FindHelpTN, but the decision logic was largely built by state workers and a number of volunteers. “It was unusual in that we had so many people working together, in such a tight timeframe with such a small budget,” Mr. Haile said. It would not have been possible without “nameless volunteers” who vetted the site for clarity, accessibility and usefulness.

So far, the response has been positive, Haile says. For those in the legislature that work in constituent services or workers in the non-profit sector, FindHelpTN gives them real-time, highly accurate feedback on a particular case.

“This tool takes out all the complexities [of finding eligibility] and helps get people on the right road to the right programs.”

To visit FindHelpTN, click here.

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