Anyone who has ever applied for federal or state benefits programs knows that it can try one’s patience. Some tech-savvy individuals based in Philadelphia addressed this problem by creating Benefits Data Trust.
Anyone who has ever applied for federal or state benefits programs knows that it can try one’s patience. Experience with government websites can make you dizzy and interacting with overworked staff in government bureaucracies can leave you in despair.
Some tech-savvy individuals based in Philadelphia addressed this problem by creating Benefits Data Trust (BDT), which developed high-powered screening and applications software to help clients navigate the process of finding help to meet basic needs.
In Philadelphia, Benefits Data Trust developed and manages BenePhilly, a network of organizations connecting people to critical public benefits for food, housing, medication, and more. It partners with funders including the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, the PA Department of Aging, and the PA Department of Human Services (DHS), as well as philanthropic organizations. BDT helps clients who call the hotlines, and trains partners to assist those in need at their community-based locations, such as Esperanza, Project Home, and Impact Services.
Stef Arck-Baynes, Director of Communication Services for BDT and a Mount Airy resident, embraces a special sense of mission since the pandemic.
“Now more than ever,” she said, “people need help who have never needed it before.”
Philadelphia residents can call the BenePhilly hotline and be screened for up to 19 different benefits. (Pennsylvania residents outside of Philadelphia can contact the PA Benefit Center.) The Benefit Outreach Specialists who work the phone lines not only inform callers about what they are eligible for, they also help them complete applications.
Prior to the pandemic, local community organizations had services for clients to meet with Outreach Specialists in person. Since the COVID restrictions, some of those organizations, including Impact Services of Germantown, can assist clients through phone interviews only.
“We have so many different stories,” said Arck-Baynes.
For example, a parent who recently lost their job might newly qualify for health insurance through the CHIP program for their kids, or the LiHEAP program to help pay their utility bills. The Outreach Specialist can then ask a few questions and also enroll the caller for programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or Medicaid over the phone.
According to Arck-Baynes, many benefits that folks are eligible for never get used.
In the last year alone, she said, “About $450,000,000 in benefits that Philadelphia residents are eligible for just sat on the table. That’s just the top five benefit programs.” This is a situation that BDT, along with its coalition of state, city, and philanthropic funders, is trying to remedy.
The job of Benefits Outreach Specialist seems like a combination of customer service and social work.
“We definitely look for compassionate and empathic individuals during the hiring process,” said Alyssa Wagner, Director of Human Resources. “We think that it is a core requirement and what we consider our ‘special sauce.’”
The Specialists participate in a training curriculum lasting four to five weeks that includes an extensive review of comprehensive benefit information, system navigation for the screening tool, and client interaction practice.
Cora Williams, 52, of North Philadelphia, has worked as a Benefits Outreach Specialist for BenePhilly for over two years. Her previous career involved customer service positions at CIGNA and the University of Pennsylvania.
When a senior calls about a supplemental Medicare program, Williams can guide them to other benefits, such as the Medicare savings program, the Low Income Subsidy (LIS) to help reduce medical premiums, or the Pharmaceutical Assistance for Contract for the Elderly (PACE) that helps pay for medications that Medicare doesn’t cover. She receives many calls from homeless teens and young mothers whom she has helped to find resources in the community.
From the first screening call, Williams engages with clients on a personal level. “We don’t just screen them,” she said, “We laugh with them. We talk about their children and pets. We let them know that we are there to help them with the application process, which has been so arduous for them.”
Williams, though she has no formal training in social work, seems especially qualified for the job. “We have to empathize with our clients,” she explained. “We live in the community. We have family members who also live in the community and may be receiving the same benefits they will be applying for.”
When clients call who are angry and frustrated, she said, “I get it.” She does not take their anger personally. “They have been told ‘this doesn’t work, that doesn’t work.’ I tell them ‘I will help you through this.” This approach helps to diffuse some of the heated emotions that can go along with asking for help.
How does Cora Williams deal with the emotional aftermath of speaking with so many distressed clients? “A lot of meditation, a lot of deep breathing,” she explained. She likes to take a walk at the end of her workday and think of the stories she has heard. She will send out a prayer for those she has spoken to that day, “that they will be met with the same kindness and respect,” that she was able to offer during the call.
Williams also calls upon her reservoir of what she calls “Grandmother Wisdom” with her clients who are in crisis. “My grandmother would say ‘Things get greater, later,’ or ‘Trouble don’t last always.’”
Since the program began in 2008, BenePhilly has assisted approximately 120,000 Philadelphians. The COVID pandemic has ushered an increase in calls from all over the city, including Northwest Philadelphia. A comparison of the number applicants during the six months from March 1, 2019- November 30, 2019 with applicants from March 1, 2020 – November 30, 2020, showed significant increases, especially in the 19144 (31% increase) and 19119 (13% increase) zip codes. BDT has added staff to handle the demand and invites residents to call hotline numbers (833-373-5868 for Philadelphia residents or 833-373-5869 for other PA residents). There is no charge for the services and all calls are confidential. Further information is available at their website, bdtrust.org/benephilly/
Pennsylvania residents outside of Philadelphia can contact the PA Benefit Center, bdtrust.org/pa-benefits-center/ or 800-528-9594.