SSA makes vital state links

The Social Security Administration has signed up seven more states for an e-government system that will enable agency officials to access information in state databases needed to process benefits applications and check for potential fraud.

E-Vital, one of the Bush administration's 24 e-government initiatives, will give SSA access to birth and death information maintained by bureaus of vital statistics in each state. The agency will check birth records to verify the identity of applicants and death records to make sure benefits are not being paid in the name of someone deceased.

The idea sounds straightforward, SSA officials say, but it has taken months of planning and testing to get it off the ground because of the close cooperation required by the states.

But after launching an e-Vital pilot project with Colorado in August, SSA plans to expand the project into seven other states by the end of the year — Hawaii, Missouri, Mississippi, Minnesota, Iowa, California and Oklahoma.

"This is a 'government-to-government' operation. SSA will be one of the first users, but there are a number of other government entities interested in using this to have immediate access to vital information," said Dean Mesterharm, SSA's acting chief information officer.

Until now, citizens had to provide birth or death information to receive benefits or a Social Security number from SSA. If an individual didn't have the appropriate document, he or she had to request a copy from a state bureau of vital statistics. Duplicate records cost money, and it can take time to find the original.

But now, SSA will be able to contact a vital statistics agency directly for the information and access records electronically. The agency will be able to process benefit applications more quickly and at a lower cost.

"It is pretty straightforward," said John McGing, e-Vital program manager. "All transactions have security and audit trails. The information is available only to people authorized to get it."

SSA partnered with the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, a nonprofit association representing state statistical directors. The association was responsible for contacting the states and getting them on board.

States store their vital statistics in Web databases, and SSA uses a Web browser-based system that goes to a hub operated by the association, which routes the information to the right state. The project costs about $850,000, according to McGing.

Other federal agencies are interested in using the system as well, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the State Department, the Railroad Retirement Board and the Internal Revenue Service, Mesterharm said.

"The major purpose is to check information regarding birth," he said. "It could be used for identity checking as well and death information. You can check a number of things with this. And preventing fraud is one of the benefits."

More than a year ago, the Bush administration announced a plan to develop and deploy 24 e-government initiatives, some of which are aimed at making government-to-citizen services faster and easier. Although many of the ideas are still being developed, e-Vital already made it past the starting gate.

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Cutting out the middleman

The Social Security Administration and its applicants may be the primary beneficiaries of the e-Vital program, but the bureaus in participating states will enjoy a fringe benefit — less drudge work. "The advantage to us is that when SSA needs to do a verification or document search, instead of my staff having to take time to manually do it or look it up on the computer, the folks at SSA can do it directly," said Ron Hyman, Colorado's state registrar for vital statistics. "It saves my staff time and provides a quicker response to the customer."

For example, a person seeking retirement benefits in Colorado would apply to a local SSA office, according to Robert Bolan, the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems' interim executive director.

"The system in Colorado would allow a record in Colorado to be checked," Bolan said. "The purpose of this project is so SSA can make that verification online more or less immediately."

Most states have put their vital records in an electronic format in the past two or three years, according to Bolan, and making them available to federal agencies is just one more step on the road to e-government.

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