Everything, it seems, is online these days — including ways to apply for and manage state benefits. As HHSC works to expand services available through YourTexasBenefits.com, the agency is inviting local organizations to help people in their communities navigate the new online world.
“There’s an established network of community organizations in Texas that help people fill out and submit HHSC’s paper application,” said Liz Garbutt, HHSC’s associate commissioner for community access and services, “so its natural for us to reach out to those same organizations and say, ‘Here are some new tools that can help you provide enhanced service to the people you serve.’”
Indeed, with YourTexasBenefits.com, any Texan can apply online for benefits, get updates about their application, and if they’re approved, they can use the website to manage their case. Those with Medicaid can get Texas Health Steps checkup alerts, see what benefits they can get, order a replacement Your Texas Benefits Medicaid ID card or print out a temporary card. More features are being added to the site.
For people with few resources and little Internet experience, applying online can be daunting. Challenges range from merely getting access to a computer to knowing the right things to click to open the array of features available. That’s where community organizations can step in.
HHSC has developed the Community Partner Program, which gives local groups like social services agencies, faith-based groups, food pantries and others online training designed to help them help their clients apply for HHSC benefits online and get the most from YourTexasBenefits.com.
“We’re really looking to work with local organizations that already serve people that may be eligible for the benefit programs we offer,” Garbutt said. “If they’re currently helping people fill out and submit the paper application, having them as a community partner will give them training that will make them more effective at helping people who need to apply for HHSC benefits.”
Besides the training, HHSC offers its community partners reports showing how many people they’re helping apply for benefits through YourTexasBenefits.com. “This tracking feature is something local groups have been wanting for a long time,” Garbutt said. “Now, with the online application, we can deliver that information, which will reflect each partner’s success.”
There are two levels of partnership from which organizations can choose. The first level is considered a self-service site. These organizations will have an Internet-connected computer available in their lobby or office for people to apply online for HHSC benefit programs. Garbutt said this might be an option for an organization that doesn’t have the staff or volunteers available to offer assistance.
“For example, a public library may have computers where people can access YourTexasBenefits.com but they may not have staff that can sit with someone and help guide them through the application. That’s a self-service site.”
The second level of partnership is an assistance site. These sites will provide computer access plus employees or volunteers who take HHSC’s online training and are certified as Your Texas Benefits navigators to help people apply using the online tools. These navigators also will be trained to help people manage their cases online.
Garbutt said regardless of the level, the organizations that choose to participate in the Community Partner Program will be in a position to provide added service for their clients and families.
“By making computers available, or going further and helping navigate through the website and the application, community partners — and especially the navigators — will become more valuable in the eyes of the people they serve.”
Virginia Michael is an outreach worker with Catholic Charities of Central Texas, one of the original community partners when the program started in January. She’s seen how essential community partners are in helping people explore HHSC’s new digital landscape.
“Part of what we do is make the client feel comfortable with the computer so they’re not so intimidated by the online application,” Michael said. “The more we work with them, the better they get at it. In the end, we want them to take ownership, so they’re comfortable going to the web and managing their case.”
Blanca Alvarado, a 45-year-old mother of three, is among the people who have called on a community partner like Catholic Charities to show them the ropes. During a recent trip to the Catholic Charities office, outreach worker Nancy Mendoza helped Blanca set up an account on YourTexasBenefits.com, helped her fill out the online application for Medicaid and SNAP food benefits, and showed her other parts of the website. The whole process took about an hour. Blanca said she looks forward to getting Internet access in her home so she can go online and check the status of her application.
“She’s got case access so she can see whatever she needs to,” Michael said. “She can check her interview time (SNAP interview with an HHSC caseworker). If she’s got any changes to make to her case, she can go online and make those changes herself. And if she runs into problems, she can call us.”
Each organization’s employees and volunteers who provide assistance using YourTexasBenefits.com are required to complete online training lessons before they can be certified as a Your Texas Benefits navigator. The training covers how to protect a client’s case information, with special emphasis on privacy protection. Beyond that, the only investment required of an organization wanting to become a community partner is a computer with Internet access.
HHSC has been piloting the Community Partner Program but is now kicking off a recruitment campaign to take the program statewide. More organizations soon will be able to join the program.
“We’ve got 18 community partners in the program,” Garbutt said. “We started small so we could evaluate and make sure our model would work. Now, we’re looking to bring on more partners and spread the program statewide.” Organizations interested in joining the Community Partner Program can fill out an online interest form.
For partners like Catholic Charities have been in the program since it began in January, the benefits of participation are obvious for both client and community partner. Catholic Charities’ Michael says she’s noticed the online applications their clients send in are being processed quicker, mainly because they are able to upload the client’s documents and get the information right to a caseworker to process.
That quicker determination of eligibility, and the support they get from the community partner, helps clients overcome any apprehension they have about the new process.
“When we first got trained, we began telling all our clients, ‘We’re going to computer [applications]. We’re moving this way so we’re going to train you and work with you,’” Michael recalled. “So they’re fine with it, they don’t have any issue with it. They know it’s OK because we’re there to help them. I think that’s the biggest comfort for them and that gives us a boost too, because we’re helping them learn how to help themselves.”
To learn more about how to become a community partner, visit HHSC’s Community Partners Program website.