Dogged by two class-action lawsuits and years of neglect, the Department of Social Services announced Monday that it had completed the first step in its modernization effort to give its clients a way to check their social service benefits on the Internet.
The new “user-friendly web-based service” will allow 750,000 clients to check their benefits online for the first time.
“While today’s launch of this new web service is just the first step, it’s one of several important upgrades the department will be undertaking in this crucial modernization process,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Monday in a press release. “If we are going to streamline services and reduce costs, we must bring the tools DSS uses to ensure that our elderly, children, families, and adults receive adequate services into the 21st Century.”
Connect.ct.gov is designed to eventually allow the state Social Services Department to transition from its current paper- and telephone-based system into the digital age, but most of the system won’t be completed until 2014.
Two attorneys involved in the class-action lawsuits against the state applauded the department for moving forward, but warned it’s just a first step. The lawyers are alleging on behalf of their clients that the state failed to process food stamp and medical benefit applications in a timely manner.
Greater Hartford Legal Aid attorney Lucy Potter said Monday that she has observed a client testing the new system. Potter said they were able to get into the system and see which services the client was receiving and how many members were in the family, but it wasn’t able to tell them any information about when their benefits were scheduled to expire.
She said it’s also disappointing that the system doesn’t allow applicants to apply for the benefits online. But she added that it’s a step in the right direction.
Potter filed the class action lawsuit against the state last year claiming the state demonstrated an inability to process food stamp applications in a timely manner. The case, which the state unsuccessfully tried to appeal to the Second Circuit Court, is still pending on the federal docket.
New Haven Legal Assistance attorney Sheldon Toubman also filed a class-action lawsuit against the state last year alleging that the state failed to process Medicaid applications in a timely manner.
Like Potter, Toubman applauded the state for moving forward with the modernization effort, but expressed his concern that it does not allow individuals to apply directly online. The system does allow individuals to determine if they may be eligible to receive services, but that doesn’t go far enough for the two lawyers.
“Even when that system is finally up and running, a DSS worker will still have to manually type in all of their info into DSS’s legacy eligibility management computer system, EMS, which is a long way from being replaced,” Toubman said Monday.
Potter said she believes the state is expected to start a small pilot program in Waterbury where it will scan paper applications. But she said even after they’re scanned they will have to be manually entered into the eligibility management system.
That concerns Toubman, who recently found through court discovery that DSS acknowledges delays will get worse because of the Affordable Care Act, which will increase enrollment by about 100,000 clients, and the state hiring freeze.
“Even after all of the modernization steps are completed, by DSS’s own wildly optimistic estimates, they still will be down about 250 workers relative to what is needed to timely and accurately process applications within federal law requirements,” Toubman said.
In the document, DSS admits that training eligibility workers on the new system will take time.
“While the department strongly believes that these changes will ultimately benefit clients and will improve application timeliness, we also expect intermittent decreases in our timeliness rate, with modest overall improvement by the end of 2013,” the DSS memo says.
The memo also says that the antiquated eligibility management system won’t be fully replaced until 2015.
But Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby remains optimistic.
“In addition to helping families and individuals across the state, this customer service measure will free our hard-pressed staff from fielding many of the routine requests for information that detract from actual casework,” Bremby said. “This will help improve overall efficiency and reduce the frustration levels of clients who have difficulty getting through on the phone.”