Promoting Equity and Dignity in Benefits Access: Supporting North Carolina and Washington in Advancing Statewide Change

| By: Alissa Weiss, Director of Government Innovation

Social safety net programs that provide children, older adults, and families access to food, medicine, and other critical assistance have been an invaluable part of America’s COVID-19 response and remain equally vital in the face of persistent inflation. Yet antiquated technologies and practices continue to present monumental challenges to connecting people easily and efficiently to benefits like SNAP, Medicaid, and WIC. What would the country’s response to these emergencies have looked like if our systems were designed to help every eligible person quickly and easily receive assistance? And how could modernizing the benefits system today enable states to recover from the pandemic while strengthening health, education, and economic outcomes tomorrow?

As a national nonprofit that has spent nearly 20 years leveraging data, technology, and policy to help people access assistance so they can live healthier, more financially secure lives, Benefits Data Trust (BDT) is uniquely positioned to assist states in pursuing these comprehensive changes. With support from The Studio @ Blue Meridian, we have launched an effort to help two states set and reach their benefits access goals, creating the kind of systems that provide dignified, efficient, and proactive assistance when it is needed.

Power of SNAP

We are honored to support North Carolina and Washington over the next two years in achieving the ambitious goals they have set to increase program participation and simplify benefits access:      

  • BDT is building on its five-year relationship with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services to help the state reach its goals of 90% and 75% participation in the SNAP and WIC programs, respectively. Given pre-pandemic participation rates of 69% in SNAP and 57% in WIC, these are bold and important goals. This work builds on NCDHHS’ innovative, multi-pronged strategy to address nutrition insecurity, which includes launching a new Division of Child and Family Well-Being that brings together major nutrition assistance programs, including WIC, SNAP, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).   
  • In Washington, BDT is supporting the state’s multi-agency Health and Human Services Coalition goal of helping residents apply for multiple programs in less than 20 minutes and immediately know their eligibility status where possible, pending required interviews. This would be a decrease from the current 65 minutes it takes clients to apply for Medicaid, SNAP and TANF. The state will advance that effort by reviewing and analyzing federal and state eligibility policies to drive meaningful change in access and service delivery. This work supports Washington’s multi-year effort to develop an Integrated Eligibility & Enrollment (IE&E) solution to streamline and improve application and enrollment processes for clients, customer partners, and staff.    

Both states plan to use data and technology to identify individuals who are eligible for but not participating in benefits like SNAP and WIC and modernize their outreach and enrollment approaches. BDT is providing flexible support — from technical assistance to direct service delivery — to help both states develop and implement the strategies necessary to achieve these goals.

Making change in systems as complex as public benefits is hard, but it is indeed possible. Whether states are rolling out a new pandemic-era benefit within 5 months, deploying waivers that leverage SNAP data to quickly enroll tens of thousands of people in Medicaid, or using human-centered design to shorten the length of a benefits application by 80%, government is capable of astounding things that benefit participants and frontline workers alike. And while no two states have the same opportunities or challenges, they can take key steps to accelerate the pace of change. These include: setting public goals that are ambitious yet specific, engaging key external partners to promote ongoing support, implementing solutions in an iterative way, and reporting publicly on progress toward those goals.

Our experience demonstrates that administering agencies can deploy five flexible principles to build a more dignified, equitable, and proactive benefits system:

  • Disaggregate data by key demographics to understand disparities and drive equitable solutions  
  • Use human-centered design to build and improve systems  
  • Create and/or enhance participant feedback mechanisms to build and improve systems  
  • Use existing data to streamline the participant experience in accessing and maintaining benefits   
  • Proactively inform participants of their eligibility and the pathways to access and maintain benefits

North Carolina and Washington are both leaders in innovative and equitable social service delivery, as exemplified by North Carolina’s efforts to leverage technology and the reach of Medicaid to address social determinants of health through NCCARE360 and the Healthy Opportunities Pilots and Washington’s comprehensive Medicaid Transformation Project that is improving the state’s health care system in order to provide whole person care. Both states see the value of using BDT’s key steps and principles in helping them reduce benefit participation gaps, streamline technology, and more. Over the next few months, they will refine their goals with input from participants and partners and will publish plans — complete with targets and strategies to achieve those goals — by the end of the year. Throughout this process, BDT will provide support ranging from legal guidance on cross-program data matching to best practices in data-driven outreach, while facilitating cross-state trainings and connection to other experts in the field.

Changing systems is hard, yet necessary — and more importantly, doable. We are thrilled to support two states so deeply committed to serving their residents and modeling how government can evolve to help people live healthier, more financially secure lives.