Panel hopes to integrate federal, state welfare data

Information technology experts are to meet this week under the purview of a recently formed federal/state committee to discuss ways in which various databases can be linked in order to cut the cost of welfare programs.

The Management Technical Advisory Group (MTAG) formed last month by the Social Security Administration and several state welfare agencies will meet in Portland Ore. at the annual meeting of the American Public Welfare Association (APWA) an organization that represents state social services agencies. The group will discuss the types of information that SSA and state welfare agencies could share that would lead to the streamlining of case processing and management of welfare programs. MTAG members expect that the discussions eventually will lead to real solutions that would allow state and federal social service agencies to access information from numerous databases on-line.

States and SSA already share data but much of it is accessed through individual contact or batch processing. With direct on-line access a state welfare agency or SSA could obtain or verify information while a welfare applicant was in the office instead of waiting for days to check the information against a report obtained through batch processing.

"A lot of time is lost with batch processing " said Paul Swanenburg chief of the data exchange branch in SSA's Office of Systems and one of the organizers of MTAG. "There are a lot of savings that can be realized if we can have direct access to information." SSA's interest in the group stems from its management of disability and low-income programs including the Supplemental Security Income program which provides cash assistance to the elderly and disabled persons who meet certain income requirements.

MTAG initially will discuss organizational issues such as how often to meet the development of a mission statement and what weight should be given to technical and policy issues.

It is unclear how many states will join. Federal agencies invited include the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration on Children and Families which administers Aid to Families With Dependent Children and the Office of Child Support Enforcement which oversees the development of state computer systems to track parents who skip out of child-support payments.

Also invited were representatives from the Agriculture Department's Food and Consumer Service Office which administers the food stamp program and IT managers from the Office of Management and Budget.

"We're going to be looking at new technology " said Pat Lynch director of the local district management support and review office in the state of New York's Department of Social Services and a member of APWA. "The questions we'll be trying to answer are: This is how we share information now how can we do it better?"

The creation of MTAG also coincides with the release of a General Accounting Office report that found SSA could save more than $131 million if it had direct on-line access to state databases to verify the income of SSI applicants [FCW Sept. 9].

But MTAG's biggest obstacles to linking federal and state databases will be technical and political Swanenburg said. Many states do not have platforms compatible with federal systems or other state systems. Some states also have privacy and disclosure laws that could derail efforts to link systems.

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