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Image of County Executive Astorino showing new technologyShowing how government can be smarter and more efficient, the Westchester County Department of Social Services is launching a new computer application this month that could potentially save more than $2 million a year by simplifying the recertification process for clients receiving Temporary Assistance payments.        

This innovative application uses state-of-the-art technology to transform the time-consuming paper process used to recertify the eligibility of people applying for Temporary Assistance into an automated system that collects more information and ultimately provides better customer service. The application system (REACH) guides clients through a step-by-step recertification interview and allows them to fill out the needed forms quickly and independently with the help of a computer in an in-office kiosk.

Reach ApplicationWestchester County is the first in the state to employ this technology.  County Executive Robert P. Astorino said the technology -- developed by the Department of Information Technology -- is a giant leap forward when it comes to customer service and fits right in with his philosophy of reducing taxes and increasing efficiency.

“This will change the way we do business – now and in the future,” Astorino said. “The recertification process will be much less time-consuming and we will be able to provide better customer service. This is a great example of an innovative and efficient way the county can provide essential services to its customers while dealing with existing economic constraints.”

He noted that the system will pay for itself in a year and save more than $2 million in each of the following years.

Astorino and Acting Commissioner of Social Services Grant Mitchell announced the new system today in a newly configured recertification room at the DSS District Office at 85 Court Street in White Plains.

Astorino sees REACH as a prototype for automating other county programs. The system could potentially be used to assist vendors seeking county contracts fill out the needed paperwork, or maybe to simplify the scheduling of tee times at golf courses or help people apply for parks passes or make ParaTransit reservations.

The program is being piloted this month for single adults and childless couples receiving Temporary Assistance payments in the White Plains District Office, but will be expanded to other DSS district offices by the end of the year. The service will be available in the Peekskill and Yonkers offices within the next month and in the Mount Vernon office by December.

Pending state approval, families will also be able to use the system in January. Clients recertifying for Medicaid should be added by spring. Eventually it is to become a web-based system that can be accessed from any computer - at home, the local library or a community agency.

Mitchell noted that the system, which has been in the works for more than a year, will help the department increase its caseload capacity while eliminating the need for additional staff resources. 

Mitchell noted that the DSS caseload had increased by about 34,000 clients over the past few years – a jump which would have required the hiring of 42 more staff.

“The REACH system will reduce the potential for errors and help case workers get more accurate information,” Mitchell said. “It will also help prevent fraud by ensuring that information is gathered consistently and every question is answered.”

Mitchell noted that staff routinely audit a high number of cases and make home visits, and the program includes automated referrals and profiling that refers any suspicions to the fraud department.

Other potential benefits include reduced paper usage, and increased linkages with community-based organizations that will be asked to set up satellite sites for access to the system.

The system, which was developed by the Department of Information Technology and based on a similar program used by the state of Florida, is unique because it allows for interaction with the public. It’s a “self-service model” that reduces the need for county employees to be involved in the customer portion of the application, according to Chief Information Officer Marguerite Beirne.

Residents who receive Temporary Assistance need to recertify every six months to ensure that they still meet the eligibility requirements. Currently they have to make an appointment with a worker and come in to fill out a 16-page form -- a process that could take more than two hours. The worker then has to review all 16 pages by hand and manually record what actions need to be taken to complete the application. 
                                                                            
With the new system, customers will be greeted by a DSS worker and directed to an in-office kiosk where they can complete the form independently. They will have an individual sign-on and be prompted to answer a series of recertification questions specifically tailored to their case. The entire process usually takes less than 30 minutes.

Many of the fields are already filled in and they just have to verify the information is correct. Help screens are available and the customer can always ask a case manager to help guide them through the process and answer any questions.

Once the application is completed, the system evaluates the responses based on a pre-defined set of rules and sends automatic referrals and alerts when appropriate. For example, the system may schedule the customer for a medical evaluation. If a person indicates they are in need of emergency housing, substance abuse treatment, assistance with utility bills or domestic violence counseling, an auto alert is sent and a caseworker will immediately follow up.

The system allows the DSS workers to complete the process in a fraction of the time, allowing them to focus on more important duties that help lead the person to self sufficiency, such as making referrals to job training or employment, or making sure they have a place to live. The new technology creates an automatic list of documents that are needed and even indicates what needs to be done by what date.

DSS has already tested and trained more than 200 people on the system, and a new four-minute video showing how the new process works will run on a loop in the waiting rooms of the district offices once it’s available.

In a recent survey of 78 customers who got to try the new system, more than 92 percent completed their recertification in less than 30 minutes and said they would use it again.

“It’s clear that many customers feel empowered after completing their recertification online by themselves,” Mitchell said. “They feel a sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency and that’s exactly what we’re aiming for.”