Beginning on August 28, the Cuyahoga Job and Family Services (“Cuyahoga JFS”) will participate in a statewide overhaul of the systems used to apply, determine eligibility and manage caseloads for food and cash assistance (SNAP and OWF). In May, Rachel Cahill outlined the upcoming conversion from CRIS-E to Ohio Benefits and the importance of community engagement in the process. With full conversion right around the corner, Cuyahoga JFS held three community forums during the week of July 23 to share detailed information about modernization efforts and respond to questions and concerns. The forums – which featured remarks from Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, JFS Acting Administrator Christy Nicholls, and Ohio Benefits Project Director Deven Mehta – were well attended by community members and social service providers, with many also attending in-depth trainings on how to use the Ohio Benefits Self-Service Portal. As a facilitator of these forums, the Center for Community Solutions observed the following themes:
- Technology and process changes come with a learning curve
Most observers agree that the modernization process underway in County Job and Family Services throughout Ohio brings much needed changes that will improve access to public benefits. Individuals applying for public benefits will finally be able to do all applications through the Ohio Benefits portal, which has been in use only for Medicaid since 2013. The portal allows applicants to complete applications online and log back in to check the status of their application. Individuals will be able to upload eligibility documents online, reducing the need to mail, fax or drop off documents. A new statewide Electronic Data Management System (“EDMS”) will simplify the transfer of benefits across county lines. A statewide Integrated Voice Response System (“IVR”) will provide consumers with a 24/7 automated system for self-service inquiry from the eligibility system, another exciting first for benefits administered by Cuyahoga JFS.
Cuyahoga JFS is simultaneously making changes to their operations to increase efficiency and improve customer service. Management of cases will transition to a case banking system, meaning individuals will no longer have an individual case manager, but will instead be able to speak with any caseworker at the county who will all have access to all case information. This will improve an often-heard complaint of not being able to reach a caseworker. The County will also be expanding the services offered through its locally staffed Call Center to respond to questions and process SNAP and TANF applications and recertifications.
As with any major technology change, the rollout of these new systems will inevitably involve glitches. Community partners can help by flagging problematic cases for quick county and/or state resolution. Similarly, process changes – like the move to case-banking and the “call-in model” for SNAP interviews – are likely to cause temporary slowdowns in application processing as JFS’ staff and clients adjust.
Individuals applying for public benefits will finally be able to do all applications through the Ohio Benefits portal, which has been in use only for Medicaid since 2013.
- Commitment to performance measurement and transparency
During the forums, Cuyahoga JFS shared detailed information about performance levels at the County Call Center. Despite some less than perfect statistics (e.g. only 75% of calls were answered by county workers in June 2018 before the call were abandoned, mostly likely due to long wait times), JFS chose to share the data with stakeholders at these public meetings. Acting Administrator Nicholls made the point that improvement rarely happens without measurement. Prior to the implementation of the new call center software, Cuyahoga JFS had no way to monitor or measure the call abandonment rate or length of time on hold. Now that Cuyahoga JFS is measuring call center performance, leadership can make concrete plans for further improvement.
- Uncertain path forward for some application assisters
There was some concern from social service agencies that provide application assistance that the new system will make it more difficult for them to assist those who need help applying for benefits. This is of greatest concern for organizations who use the Ohio Benefits Bank, which leverages the current “E-Gateway” portal to submit applications to Cuyahoga JFS on behalf of their clients. When E-Gateway shuts down, third-parties will not have an online mechanism to submit and track applications for their clients, since no “community assister portal” exists. This could reduce access to SNAP and other county-administered benefits for those with limited access to the internet and those with limited digital literacy. Cuyahoga JFS plans to provide assisters support as they adjust to the loss of the portal via training, information and other related resources.
- Opportunity for ongoing dialogue
County leadership demonstrated a real commitment to ongoing dialogue with community stakeholders throughout the forums. For example:
- In each session, Cuyahoga JFS leadership spent over an hour answering questions from the audience and welcomed ongoing engagement between JFS staff and social service providers to better serve their mutual clients.
- A comprehensive toolkit was developed and shared, which included flyers and samples of client notices, among other materials.
- All attendees were encouraged to sign up for Cuyahoga JFS’ outreach listserv by emailing Community_Outreach@jfs.ohio.gov to ensure they receive the latest news about modernization initiatives and scheduled systems outages.
- The County committed to holding future community forums after the conversion to Ohio Benefits (possibly in October/November) to solicit feedback and troubleshoot outstanding problems.
- Tips for social service providers
If you are a social service agency that directly helps customers who receive or plan to apply for benefits administered by Cuyahoga Job and Family Services, keep the following tips in mind:
- From 6:00pm on Wednesday, August 22 through 6:00am on Tuesday, August 28, Ohio Benefits (including the Self-Service Portal, Worker Portal, and Presumptive Eligibility / Deemed Portal) and CRIS-E will be unavailable to accept benefits applications, recertify benefits, or report changes. County JFS offices will still be open for business and accepting paper applications and verification documents, but cases will not be processed until Ohio Benefits is back online.
- Unlike on the current JFS 7200 Application (“Request for Cash, Food, and Medical Assistance”) which evaluates an applicant’s eligibility for all benefit programs, the Ohio Benefits Self-Service Portal requires applicants to actively select the programs for which they wish to apply. If no selections made, the application will default to a SNAP ONLY application.
- Customers applying for or recertifying SNAP benefits will be asked to CALL IN to complete their required interview at a designated time (or anytime earlier), rather than waiting for a caseworker to call them. Although this new process is described on all current notices being sent from Cuyahoga JFS, some customers may need reminding.
- If a county resident experiences a disruption in their benefits, or has trouble with the application process, after the conversion to Ohio Benefits on August 28, get help right away! Contact Cuyahoga JFS at 844-640-OHIO (6446).