The Remote Caseworker Conundrum
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt every facet of human life and state and federal governments enforce ‘shelter in place’, the caseworkers who handle social and health programs are finding it difficult to adapt on the job.
Other than making sure there is no disruption to any assistance to an already vulnerable population, they need to figure out how to carry on with their day-to-day operations. How does the eligibility worker handle the multiple face-to-face interviews scheduled for the day? What safety precautions does the site visit inspector have to take when inspecting a home or facility? Is it even advisable for the welfare workers to physically work out of an office building?
Given the importance of both uninterrupted service and the wellbeing of the workers who are administering the programs, we need to tackle this from the perspective of policy, operations, and public-private partnerships.
- Face-to-face: It made a lot of sense in the past as a means to prevent fraud, waste and abuse. However, only a few of the states have used the waiver to transition to a phone interview. As we have moved to electronic verifications, either this requirement needs to be eliminated or all states need to get a waiver.
- Allow data sharing across agencies: Move to a true person centric social welfare system, which means re-evaluating project charters and removing any one-off single program implementation bids like standalone SNAP or TANF or Medicaid.
- Allow case load distribution across the state in times of emergency by relaxing case ownership rules.
- Move to ‘no-touch’ or ‘minimum-touch’ processing of the application, interim changes and re-certifications
- Studies from the private sector have proven that telecommuting, flexible work schedules, and remote working actually increase productivity and even employee morale.
- As HHS systems move to the cloud with infrastructure handled by the cloud providers, it is time to seriously consider embracing the ‘remote case worker’ concept.
- Benchmarking from the private sector, consider remote desktop technologies to connect to the required networks with appropriate security.
- Clearly establish communication channels and operational procedures as the workforce adjusts to the new work culture like defining work schedule, conference call procedures, Instant Message (IM) etiquette, and explicit direction on two-way communication across the organization.
- For workers that need to come into an office building, ensure a clean and safe work place based on the new ‘social distancing’ principles.
- Enable technology for all modes of communication between the case workers and the citizens from emails and texts to FaceTime, WebEx etc.
- Invest in self-service kiosks not only at the service centers but also in public libraries and shelters.
- Here’s a radical thought – provide all social welfare recipients with a smart phone and an ‘app’ for the state’s social programs for which the data usage is free (e.g., Netflix is free on T-Mobile).
- Team up with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to provide free Wi-Fi hotspots in populous areas.
- State CTOs should work directly with cloud providers to move their offerings to their preferred cloud.
- Use drone based cameras for site inspections wherever possible.
As remote working becomes the norm in this post COVID 19 world, the state and federal agencies have to come together along with the private sector to update policy, operations and technology to make the ‘remote caseworker’ a reality.
Vijay is the HHS Consulting Lead and Head of Medicaid Practice at Infosys Public Services. He has over 20 years of experience working with multiple HHS agencies across multiple states to help them achieve their IT vision.