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OPINION: Social services application more user friendly

by Cecile Bledsoe | July 14, 2021 at 5:25 a.m.

LITTLE ROCK -- The state Department of Human Services has installed a new system for filling out applications for social services.

It is designed to be more user friendly, both for people applying for services and for staff at DHS county offices.

DHS officials told legislators on the Senate and House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committees that the new system should hold down costs, and make it easier for applicants to find the benefits for which they are eligible.

For example, in filling out the application digitally, they can click a button that refers them to services for veterans. They can also access other resources such as child care, transportation and housing.

Previously, an applicant for social services could fill out as many as eight applications. The new system eliminates the need for separate applications. Also, one application is good for an entire household.

Lawmakers specifically asked if the new system was linked to agencies that could help applicants find a job or sign up for adult education classes. There is a link to those resources, DHS officials told the legislative committee.

All the department's medical services, including Medicaid, have been set up in the new system since April. Just last week the system began a pilot project in five Arkansas counties to take applications for food stamps and welfare. The five counties represent 6% of the department's total caseload. They are Carroll, Hot Spring, Independence, Lafayette and Pope counties.

In November, DHS county offices in about half the state will install the system. They're roughly in southern and eastern Arkansas. In December the remaining half of the state, in eastern and northern Arkansas, will get the new system.

The technology will allow applications 24 hours a day, on numerous types of devices. People who wish to can still visit a county office in person to fill out a paper application, and they can still telephone their county office.

DHS officials hope the new system will cut down on the number of in-person visits and phone calls to county offices. Staff will no longer have to enter as much data manually. Applicants will be able to download documents digitally, which will eliminate the need to mail documents or bring them in person to a county office and wait in line.

It is the Arkansas Integrated Eligibility System, and officials are calling it ARIES for short. A DHS official told legislators that it would make a "huge" difference in how people apply for Medicaid, food stamps, welfare and other services. Also, the state will have more accurate and timely access to demographic data about social programs, she said.

ARIES will provide translations into Spanish and Marshallese. The language of the English original has been simplified, compared to previous application forms. It is written to be understandable at the fifth- to seventh-grade level.

One legislator thanked the DHS officials for staying within their budget when they installed ARIES. That doesn't always occur when state agencies implement new information technology, he said.

The department spent $111.1 million in Fiscal Year 2020 on ARIES, and $88.3 million in Fiscal Year 2021. During Fiscal Year 2022, which started on July 1, the department estimates it will spend $68.3 million on the system.

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Editor's note: Arkansas Sen. Cecile Bledsoe represents the third district. From Rogers, Sen. Bledsoe is chair of the Senate Health Committee.

Print Headline: Social services application more user friendly

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