The Department of Health and Human Services is moving forward with a multimillion effort to revamp its online portal where residents apply for food stamps, Medicaid and other state assistance.
The state is looking to update My Maine Connection — the platform people use to apply for MaineCare, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — to make it more user-friendly. The upgrades will include allowing applicants to upload documents into the system and the ability to check on the status of their applications, according to DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell. The portal would also allow people to interact with the state-based marketplace when it goes online, but not apply for coverage.
It’s unclear when the changes will be finalized, as the state is now negotiating a contract with its chosen vendor, Deloitte Consulting LLP — an international consulting agency that last year also scored a $36.4 million contract to redesign Maine’s child welfare information system, work on which began April 1. The company’s bid for the My Maine Connection work came in at $8 million, according to bid documents.
Deloitte beat out Portland-based software development firm Portland Webworks and KPMG LLP, a consulting firm affiliated with Switzerland-based KPMG International, in bidding for the work.
The news comes as some states are seeing record numbers of people apply for assistance during the high levels of unemployment caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Farwell said a timeline of when the work will be done could be provided after a contract is finalized.
The state has taken actions to make some assistance more accessible during the pandemic. It is allowing interviews for TANF, which provides low-income families with children a small monthly amount of money, to be conducted on the phone rather than in person. Gov. Janet Mills also issued an executive order in early April increasing SNAP benefits through July and allowing TANF recipients to request benefit extensions even if they’ve received benefits for the normal five-year lifetime maximum.
The proposed changes to My Maine Connection fall in line with two of the recommendations of a legislative working group tasked with recommending how to make the state assistance system more accessible, according to a draft report.
The working group also recommended shortening the application process. A 2019 Code for America report surveying the accessibility of states’ online safety net programs found that it took 45 minutes and 60 screens to apply for three of Maine’s assistance programs.
Ann Danforth, a policy advocate for Maine Equal Justice — which participated in the working group — said those barriers can be frustrating for applicants who have to submit the same information on multiple applications.
“People shouldn’t be frustrated when applying for services and have to jump through hoops,” she said. “A well-coordinated system would have everything a person needs.”
Deloitte has designed integrated online platforms for 27 other states, according to proposal documents. Some, like Michigan’s, were reported to improve user experience and cut application times by 50 percent. In Rhode Island, it bungled the rollout of changes to the state’s general assistance online application system, resulting in a $50 million settlement with the state.
The Maine project is of a different scope than Rhode Island’s, Farwell said, and the state has had a positive experience working with the company since 2005. She said the state plans to include “safeguards” in the final contract to ensure the redesign’s success.
Deloitte did not return a request for comment.