States make vital link

Seven more states have signed up for an e-government system that will enable Social Security Administration officials to access information in state databases 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.

SSA officials say it has taken months of planning and testing to get the project 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.

To receive benefits or a Social Security number from SSA, citizens have had to provide the agency with birth or death information. 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.

With e-Vital, 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.

In the e-Vital system, states store 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, said Dean Mesterharm, SSA's acting chief information officer.

"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."

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