CLEVELAND — When you need to get benefits like SNAP or Medicaid — time is usually of the essence. So is ease. But oftentimes, those processes can be full of complications. According to a new survey by Cleveland-based think tank The Center for Community Solutions, users say Ohio’s online benefits self-service portal isn’t meeting their needs.
“When a website doesn’t work, then your only option is to call — then you get these really long wait times,” said consultant Rachel Cahill.
She conducted the study in part with grassroots organizations throughout the state, including NOBLE (Northern Ohioans for Budget Legislation Equality).
The survey asked more than 150 Ohioans specifics about applying for benefits online.
Most described it as difficult to navigate, riddled with system errors and, maybe most importantly, not mobile-friendly.
Cahill said that three-fourths of people said they only have access to internet on their phones.
“If a website is designed to be viewed on a computer and can’t be used on your phone, you’ve already sort of closed the door to all of those folks,” Cahill explained.
There are also issues with something as simple as how users upload necessary documents — updates other states made 9 to 10 years ago.
“We don’t have a way in 2020, almost 2021, to easily send documents of your paystub, your utility bill to the county,” Cahill said. “Right now, people are asked to make a copy and then fax or mail it to the county.”
The goal of a survey like this is to offer up policy and process changes.
In this case, researchers found it was actually easier for people to apply for and get benefits during the pandemic.
That’s because the state took advantage of federal waivers to make it simpler for people to renew or re-certify SNAP or Medicaid.
But, those waivers are running out and now, phone wait times in Cuyahoga County are back up to one or two hours.
Something Jessica Herzfeld knows all too well. She’s been on Medicaid for about three years.
“I’m an artist so I haven’t made enough money to afford anything through the healthcare exchange,” Herzfeld explained.
She said getting initially signed up wasn’t too bad.
But renewing benefits every year takes hours on the website, on the phone, and sometimes requires an in-person trip.
“My experience with the administrative process has been pretty terrible,” Herzfeld said. “It’s really frustrating, it’s really stressful.”
“I think the big story is that the system isn’t designed for users,” Cahill added.
News 5 reached out to Ohio’s Department of Medicaid and the Department of Jobs and Family Services for a response to the survey. You can read their full statements — and changes they are implementing — below.
Ohio Department of Job and Family Services
We appreciate the Center for Community Solutions providing feedback of Ohioans’ experience applying online for benefits. The statewide partners involved in Ohio Benefits have identified 23 enhancements for the self-service portal. Seventeen of these enhancements have been prioritized for implementation before the close of the year to improve the ease with which Ohioans can apply for public assistance electronically. Ohioans who experience difficulties with applying can report issues or concerns related to the self-service solution by contacting the consumer help desk phone number provided in the SSP 1-844-640-6446.
Ohio Department of Medicaid
Ohio Department of Medicaid (ODM) appreciates the work Centers for Community Solutions has invested in ensuring Ohioans receive meaningful and effective resources as they seek support during times of hardship. We take the findings to heart and are committed to improving the consumer experience with Medicaid’s program.
As stated in Director Corcoran’s 2019 year-end memo to Governor DeWine [attached for convenience], ODM began work to correct a long-standing issue of excessive enrollment backlogs in early 2019. Case in point: on Jan. 7, 2019, Ohio had 53,392 Medicaid applications pending for more than 45 days. On Oct. 26, 2020, that number had been reduced to 6,109 applications pending for more than 45 days. Since that time the agency introduced several actions to ease the enrollment process, reduce the backlog of cases pending and fortify program integrity.
- Partnered with the Ohio Departments of Jobs and Family Services (JFS) and Administrative Services (DAS) executive leadership to establish a systems governance board to identify, validate and remedy technical issues specific to the Ohio Benefits system.
- Implemented more than 40 OB system enhancements to correct defects and enhance the user interface.
- Strengthened engagement with County Department of Jobs and Family Services (CDJFS) caseworkers to increase awareness and compliance with Medicaid income and eligibility verification processes, documentation requirements and program policies.
- Conducted 281 CDJFS site visits (virtual and in person) during calendar year 2020.
- Created an online tool to effectively review and report eligibility error trends to county partners to trigger awareness and corrective actions.
- Launched a County Engagement unit consisting of five engagement managers assigned to 17 counties each. Engagement managers meet quarterly with all 88 counties to discuss a variety of topics.
- Instituted a comprehensive training program focused on high-priority, high-impact technical issues, eligibility policies, documentation and regulatory requirements.
- Introduced 45 instructor led training seminars, 44 of which are available on demand and include comprehensive instruction materials.
- Issued a request for proposals for an independent IT vendor to evaluate the OB system to assess the stability, gaps and proposed improvements of the system.
The efforts described above are ongoing and will improve service to individuals, increase the accuracy of ODM’s Medicaid eligibility determinations, and provide more accountability for taxpayer dollars.