SSA may link with state databases

Despite expected resistance from states House members are considering introducing legislation that could lead to the linking of state welfare databases with the Social Security Administration so that the federal government could reduce the overpayment of certain welfare benefits.

The legislation which most likely would not be introduced until Congress convenes next year would be a response to a General Accounting Office report released last month that strongly recommended the federal government set up on-line access to state welfare databases.

GAO found SSA could save more than $131 million in its Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program if it could tap into state databases to verify the amounts of income and other federal aid that welfare applicants reported they receive.

SSI which is managed by SSA provides income to the elderly and persons who are disabled. The amount beneficiaries receive depends on their earned income resources and how much aid they receive from other welfare programs. Typically applicants provide that information when applying for SSI and SSA employees verify it by means other than a computer - a process that can take months according to GAO.

But with on-line access to state databases SSA can immediately check an applicant's earnings unemployment insurance benefits and cash received under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and worker compensation programs - information that is stored in separate state government databases.

SSA is testing on-line access to state databases in Tennessee North and South Carolina and Kentucky and the agency has contacted 11 other states to implement the same program.

"The SSI program could be administered more efficiently and more importantly millions of dollars in overpayments could be prevented ...if information needed for claims processing was available immediately on-line..." GAO concluded.

GAO recommended that SSA require on-line access to state databases to check for overpayments and to "develop automatic interfaces ...that comply with laws and standards governing computer matches privacy and security...."

The large savings from on-line verification of income data is what some House members were looking for to justify legislation that may lead to SSA having access to state databases.

"Clearly when we were meeting with GAO it was our intention to introduce legislation on this if the GAO found a large favorable result " said a staff member on the House Ways and Means Committee's Oversight Subcommittee.

The staff member added that it was too early to discuss what the legislation would require.

But SSA and state officials are dubious about a nationwide effort to link computers. SSA disagreed with GAO's assertion that giving SSA direct on-line access was relatively easy and inexpensive.

"Many states have internal compatibility problems between programs that will need to be overcome as well as very different levels of automation among programs " wrote SSA commissioner Shirley Chater in a letter to GAO. "On-line access will take considerable effort to identify opportunities resolve compatibility and other technical issues and negotiate the agreements necessary to implement it."

John Kost vice president of the state and local group at Federal Sources Inc. said establishing compatibility among 50 systems will be an enormous problem and may require the federal government to mandate standards.

"If that happens states will revolt " he said. "That's the biggest obstacle."

Many states are reluctant to give SSA access to their databases because they fear the government may use the information for something other than verifying income for the SSI program. Also many states refuse to give SSA access because the agency has resisted giving states access to its databases so that states can verify Social Security numbers.

SSA has opposed giving states access because it fears the agency's security will be compromised. SSA officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

The disagreements have led to a standoff between SSA and states. "This has really been a big barrier " said a welfare information systems expert.

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