Originally published in State Tech Magazine on February 28, 2023.
Here’s a statistic that should give pause to every professional who works with public benefit programs: More than $80 billion in critical assistance goes unclaimed each year. That includes everything from nutrition and healthcare support to programs for infants and children and affordable internet service.
It’s a striking number. Dig into the research, however, and the problem becomes clearer. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that more than a quarter of the eligible working poor (26 percent) are not enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Forty-three percent of eligible parents and young children are not enrolled in the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The Social Security Administration reports that 1.3 million eligible older adults are not enrolled in Medicare’s Extra Help prescription drug assistance program.
It is not hyperbole to call underenrollment a crisis. Studies show that participation in public benefit programs can reduce hospitalization and nursing home admissions, improve child welfare and educational outcomes, reduce food insecurity, and help stabilize families. However, people need to be enrolled for the programs to work.
Data Sharing Can Boost Enrollment for Public Benefits
How do we boost enrollment and connect people with help? One potent solution is data sharing, the process of providing other agencies or entities with access to information they cannot already access in their own systems. At Benefits Data Trust, we have spent almost two decades promoting data sharing among states and organizations working in healthcare and education. Time and again, we have seen that when government agencies and other sectors deploy secure and permissible data-sharing approaches, enrollment numbers climb.
BDT has been directly involved in 40 separate data-sharing agreements, and our work has produced about 900,000 benefit enrollments for families and individuals nationwide. There’s a reason that SNAP and Medicaid agencies in 43 states and many cities share data: It is effective.
[A data-sharing framework] eliminates the need to do a lot of paperwork, it saves so much time, it helps us get into data insights faster and it helps program folks to take action faster.
Two States Showcase Effective Data Sharing
Of course, data sharing is not a radical idea, nor is it anything new. For example, Pennsylvania became a pioneer when it launched its prescription assistance program for older Pennsylvanians in 1984. To facilitate enrollment, officials looked to the state’s Property Tax/Rent Rebate Program, which had enrollment criteria similar to its prescription assistance program. They then used that list to fuel outreach and signed up roughly 389,000 older Pennsylvanians by the end of the first year.
Pennsylvania then followed up on its success. The program has leveraged 16 lists from other programs and agencies, including the state’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Department of Revenue and Department of Agriculture. BDT has worked with the Pennsylvania Department of Aging to enroll about 240,000 people using data sharing since 2005.
Similar stories can be found across the country. In South Carolina, the state’s Department of Social Services matches Medicaid and SNAP lists monthly to identify those not taking advantage of SNAP. A partnership with BDT to reach out to those individuals has generated 20,000 SNAP enrollments since 2015.
Common Challenges Include Legal Hurdles, Tech Mismatch
As many states have found, state and local governments can use data to break down programmatic silos, administrative barriers and other obstacles that block access to assistance.
While data sharing is a simple concept, execution is often more complicated. Legal hurdles, data and technology differences between agencies, and a lack of resources are common challenges. Yet, as BDT has repeatedly seen, almost every jurisdiction can take steps toward data sharing. It’s important to note the entryway to any data-sharing project is a fundamental question: Does the law permit data sharing for this specific circumstance?
BDT recently released a 100-page data-sharing playbook that provides key context on how to answer this question and navigate the legal process surrounding data sharing. It also offers recommendations, case studies and templates.
Data-Sharing Playbook Offers Steps for Success
To create the data-sharing playbook, we interviewed 35 government officials and experts, and nearly all said there is much that states and cities can do to facilitate data sharing. For example:
- Start with a legal analysis. A successful data-sharing endeavor can improve the benefits system while following the legal, privacy and security rules necessary for the lawful and ethical use of confidential data. Most benefit program laws specify whom applicant/participant data may be shared with and for what purposes. Understanding those laws and considerations can unlock the potential of data sharing.
- Communicate and align. Steady communication with your data-sharing partner is essential to keep efforts moving. Include the legal, operations, privacy and technology teams on both sides. Data sharing can work without high-end technology, but it cannot work without trust.
- Make considered data decisions. Spend time identifying the data you need to run your interventions in advance and think about future needs. For example, if you plan to use text-based outreach, mobile numbers will be required.
- Discuss formats and definitions. If data is formatted the same way across departments, sharing, matching and analysis become much easier. While this may seem mundane, it is worthy of detailed conversation. For example, there are many ways to format a date-of-birth field, and it is crucial to be consistent.
Once you put the effort into creating a data-sharing agreement, it's important to think about ways to sustain and scale the work. Lorelle Yuen, a project analyst at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, has experience building a data-sharing framework for the agency.
“It eliminates the need to do a lot of paperwork, it saves so much time, it helps us get into data insights faster and it helps program folks to take action faster,” Yuen says. “We had a colleague who tried to quantify the time savings with this new framework, and we found there was up to a 90 percent time savings, which is significant.”