Public benefits programs often remain undersubscribed by the populations that need them most, because these individuals may be unaware of the programs or lack access to application assistance. In Fredericksburg, Virginia, the Department of Social Services (DSS) has been better able to enroll hard-to-reach populations in benefits thanks to an approach that outstations a full-time eligibility worker in community sites, to provide benefits outreach, and help with applications and renewals.

Who was the target audience?

Traditionally hard-to-reach populations, including the elderly, persons with mental health and substance abuse issues, and domestic violence survivors, among others

What did they do?

Several years ago, Fredericksburg DSS examined their performance data and discovered they were only enrolling 65% of eligible beneficiaries into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or Food Stamps).

Personnel changes within the DSS eligibility unit, as well as discussions with representatives from the federal Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), inspired them to seek new ways to conduct outreach for SNAP and other benefits programs in this community of 20,000 people. Their resulting proposal – to outstation an eligibility worker full-time in various community sites to do outreach and application assistance – was met with overwhelming support from local agencies and organizations.

Thanks to federal funding and a grant from the Mary Washington Hospital Community Service Fund awarded in July 2009, Fredericksburg DSS was able to outstation one full-time eligibility worker on a rotation at nine community sites. The sites include a low-income housing unit, free clinics, community health center and church ministries. The worker assists persons with applying for Medicaid and SNAP, as well as makes referrals and connects them to other agencies administering benefits programs for which they may be eligible. Her schedule includes working two evenings a week, one day in the DSS office to process applications, and one day set aside each month at the sites to assist clients with renewing their benefits.

What was the result?

At the end of its first grant year, Fredericksburg DSS exceeded its projected enrollment goals. The out-stationing approach was responsible for getting 281 new SNAP enrollments (projected goal = 145), and new Medicaid enrollments totaled 188 (projected goal = 90). While the community partners have helped to promote the presence of the eligibility worker at their sites, word of mouth has been a successful tool, especially among seniors, enabling DSS to see even more potential clients.

The only significant challenge Fredericksburg DSS encountered was recruiting the eligibility worker, and finding a person with the right combination of marketing and benefits/social services experience. After several months of advertising the position, DSS finally was able to engage Bonnie Newcomb to serve in the role, bringing with her expertise both in DSS programs as well as marketing skills and knowledge of the local community.

Its successful first-year performance meant that DSS received a grant renewal from Mary Washington Hospital Community Service Fund. (Note: A small amount of local, unrestricted money is used to cover incidental purchases, e.g., laptop, cell phone.) However, DSS Assistant Director Christen Gallik noted that the immense support from community partners was likely to keep the out-stationing program running well into the future.