Texas agency speeds food stamp applications for Katrina victims

Texas has developed and deployed a new Web-based application to help process survivors of Hurricane Katrina and provide them with needed food stamp benefits.

Texas Health and Human Services Commission

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The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) has developed and deployed a new Web-based application that will help process survivors of Hurricane Katrina and provide them with needed food stamp benefits quickly.

With help from the private sector, state government officials began testing the new system Labor Day and deployed it statewide Sept. 7 at shelters and disaster recovery centers in the Texas cities of Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, where most of the evacuees are housed. The system allows HHSC workers to complete and process an application using a laptop computer and an Internet connection.

“This new system allows us to process a case from initial interview to the approval of assistance within 30 minutes,” Albert Hawkins, HHSC’s executive commissioner, said in a press release. “It also provides us with a way to quickly set up offices in shelters so that the process is more convenient for families seeking help.”

Commission spokeswoman Jennifer Harris said nearly 43,000 applications – representing about $5.7 million in food stamp benefits – have been processed since the new system went live. Overall, she said the Texas health system has helped about 100,000 evacuee families with food stamp benefits.

According to HHSC, several contractors participated in the project. One was Accenture, whose volunteers have contributed more than 1,200 hours so far to developing and supporting the application. The company also loaned hardware and software.

Dell and IBM also loaned additional computers to create mobile workstations. SBC and Texas Department of Information Resources employees worked Labor Day weekend to provide Internet connections at shelters and disaster recovery centers.

Before this new system, evacuees had to go to one of the existing state offices to apply for benefits. Harris said that meant they had to know where to go and needed to provide additional, legally required documentation.

The state’s existing policies and systems were inadequate in providing on-the-spot help to evacuees. She said state officials worked with the federal government to relax the standards, and the new system was developed to be mobile. HHSC staff help evacuees fill out the one-page application, and it takes only a few hours to get the emergency benefits, she added.

“Everyone responded to this tragedy without hesitation,” Hawkins said. “Our frontline workers stayed at offices and shelters late into the night to process applications, and our contractors quickly provided any assistance we needed. It has been an amazing effort and will serve as a model for how to provide disaster services in the future.”

HHSC oversees four state health departments including assistive and rehabilitative services, family and protective services, aging and disability services, and the state health services, which collectively spend $20 billion annually on more than 200 programs.

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