States seek better terms on e-gov deal

The Social Security Administration and state governments are at odds over implementing one of the Bush administration's e-government projects.

The eVital project, which aims to automate the delivery of certified birth and death records maintained by the states, threatens to reduce state revenues when states need all they can get.

Sales of certified birth and death records are an important revenue source for most state health departments, said leaders of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS), which represents the states.

SSA officials propose to pay states for delivering the records electronically, but the amount is far too little, said Kenneth Beam, NAPHSIS' executive director.

He said SSA and state officials are negotiating the amount, and he expressed confidence that an agreement would be reached.

Eight states are participating in the Electronic Verification of Vital Events (EVVE) pilot program, in which the agency can verify birth or death records for people applying for retirement, death or disability benefits. To protect individuals' privacy, the verification requests go through a hub server maintained by NAPHSIS, and the results are returned to SSA as either a match with state records or not a match.

Some states feel the federal government is trying to get something for practically nothing, said Alvin Onaka, NAPHSIS president, Hawaii state registrar and chief of the state's Office of Health Status Monitoring. "The states have provided a tremendous contribution to the Social Security Administration," he said.

He said SSA officials are not considering the cost of building the systems that EVVE queries. "The investment has all been in the states," Onaka said, "and there needs to be some return on that investment."

Hawaii is an EVVE pilot program participant. State law requires certain fees for birth certificates, he said, and the laws govern the EVVE relationship. As a result, his office cannot supply birth information at the rates proposed by SSA.

"The states cannot lose money" from supplying information to SSA, he said.

SSA spokesman Martha McNish declined to discuss the issue, only saying, "We're in the process of analyzing the pilot [eVital project], and then we'll decide how to proceed."

According to NAPHSIS, SSA and the states agreed to have an accounting firm study the costs and revenues associated with certified birth and death records in participating states. At the end of a four-month study, the consulting firm of KPMG LLP recommended that SSA pay the states $6.42 for each birth record match and $9.38 for each death record.

But SSA officials rejected those rates and instead proposed to pay a maximum $1.50 per certificate or verification received electronically.

The program will accelerate SSA's record checking of people applying for benefits and will reduce the agency's costs. Verifying the age of a person claiming Social Security benefits takes an average of 10.6 days, according to NAPHSIS officials.

eVital is expected to reduce fraud from applicants who present false or altered documents. Applicants would no longer need to present copies of birth and death certificates to SSA and other federal agencies.

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