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Electronic program could help El Paso County residents get benefits, save taxpayer money

September 26, 2017 Updated: September 26, 2017 at 8:50 pm
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photo - (Photo courtesy of El Paso County)
(Photo courtesy of El Paso County) 

An electronic program that El Paso County plans to roll out next year aims to give caseworkers a boost that could help more people benefit from food stamps and Medicaid.

The system, which staff will use to scan, store and share applications and related documents, is expected to streamline the enrollment process and cut down on wait times for low-income residents who qualify for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, El Paso County Human Services Director Julie Krow told county commissioners at their regular Tuesday meeting. The county will work with Pueblo and Adams counties to implement the program, created by Arapahoe County, using about $850,000 in state and federal grants.

DHS officials say the system is likely to save taxpayer money by reducing personnel costs and ensuring the county is in line with state and federal application processing goals, which, if not met, can result in fines.

From June 2016 through May 2017, Krow's department spent nearly $150,000 in overtime and straight time pay to meet the guidelines, which take into account application processing speeds and mistakes the department makes while determining eligibility and administering benefits, according to a grant application the county submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service.

Of the roughly 103,000 people in El Paso County who are eligible for SNAP benefits, about 72,000 are enrolled in the program, the proposal states. County residents enrolled in the program are given incorrect payments about 10 percent of the time when receiving benefits, which makes the county noncompliant with state guidelines.

About 26 percent of El Paso County's population is enrolled in Medicaid, according to the state's Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.

Enrollments have been on the rise in recent years, led by Medicaid's expansion under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The health law opened up eligibility to hundreds of thousands of Coloradans - mostly single adults living near or just above the federal poverty level. In El Paso County, more than 57,000 people have enrolled in those expanded benefits, accounting for about one-third of the county's Medicaid enrollees.

The county's new system, which organizes documents by case, will be easily searchable for staff, who sometimes have to scroll through hundreds of documents to find what they're looking for, Krow said.

"They spend so much time moving paper around the department and helping people find documents, tracking documents so they don't get lost. All of that will go away. It will help the morale of our workers because they're be able to spend more time doing what they really want to do," Krow said. "They want to help people become self-sufficient. They want to be able to help people get jobs."

It will also help to prioritize applications, which will be automatically arranged in a queue once they are uploaded based on state processing deadlines

Since Arapahoe County began using the system in 2015, the Arapahoe County DHS estimates it has saved about 4 million sheets of paper and nearly $1.5 million in temporary staffing and overtime costs. It's also reduced the time it takes to apply for programs administered by the department from about 25 minutes to two minutes, said Cheryl Ternes, director of the department.

Thanks to the improvements the system has fostered, the department has been able to handle a caseload that has more than doubled with the same staffing levels, Ternes said.

"We're not spending time going through stacks of paperwork," she said.

While Colorado has ranked poorly in delivering food stamp benefits to those who are eligible, El Paso County received high marks on a report released by Hunger Free Colorado earlier this year. About 70 percent of county residents eligible for SNAP are enrolled in the program -- a figure roughly 11 percent above the statewide percentage but 4 percent below the national percentage, according to the report. The analysis, which used data from 2013 and 2014. ranked the state 45th nationally for program access.

Vikki O'Neil, senior vice president of the Denver-based organization that produced the report, said she suspects the new system will help El Paso County process applications more efficiently and accurately.

"Families in crisis are going to be served more effectively and more efficiently," said O'Neil, who previously worked for the county's DHS. "They'll get their benefits sooner."

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Jakob Rodgers contributed to this article.

Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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