Changes to public benefit system proposed

The Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony Feb. 1 on a bill that would provide legislative oversight of ACCESSNebraska, the state’s public benefit management and delivery system.

LB1041, introduced by Omaha Sen. Tanya Cook, would adopt the Department of Health and Human Services Delivery Improvement and Efficiency Act. Cook said the goal of the bill is to improve the delivery of public benefits in Nebraska and relieve the current burden on department employees.

Implementation of the ACCESSNebraska system has resulted in excessive wait times on phone calls, lost documents and a lack of personal contact with caseworkers, Cook said.

“One of the biggest issues before the Legislature and this committee is the need to reform the ACCESSNebraska system,” she said.

Among other provisions, LB1041 would require to the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to:

  • align verification procedures across various public benefit programs;
  • expand the use of federal, state and commercial databases to verify eligibility;
  • collect and report data regarding access to public benefit programs and case closures;
  • renew programs simultaneously and prevent closings for reasons other than ineligibility;
  • coordinate public benefit renewals by using the longest eligibility period allowable under federal law;
  • allow information used to determine eligibility for one program also to be used for other programs; and
  • eliminate asset limits to the extent currently applied to eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Former DHHS caseworker Jim Celer testified in support of the bill, saying it would help solve many of the problems he observed with ACCESSNebraska. After the new system was implemented, Celer said, he and his coworkers spent most of their time performing paperwork tasks assigned by computer rather than connecting personally with clients.

“With ACCESSNebraska there’s no way to have that kind of connection,” Celer said.

James Goddard of Nebraska Appleseed also testified in support of LB1041, saying it would maintain the integrity of the state’s public benefit programs while making them more efficient.

DHHS’s efforts to streamline public benefit service delivery has resulted in more technology and fewer caseworkers, Goddard said. One result is a 25 percent phone call abandonment rate, he said, meaning that one in four people who call the ACCESSNebraska system hang up before having their issue resolved.

Scot Adams, DHHS interim director of children and family services, testified in opposition to LB1041, saying the department already is achieving the bill’s goals. For example, he said, individuals currently can apply for multiple benefit programs simultaneously.

“Many requirements we think are already in place and used by the department,” Adams said. “I assure you that we’re doing what we can to streamline, smooth out and make easier the application and renewal process.”

Vivianne Chaumont, director of the DHHS Medicaid division, also testified in opposition. She said changing Medicaid eligibility from six months to 12 months could result in a cost of approximately $41 million to the state.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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