Pa. Department of Human Services prepares to launch mobile app

Officials for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services say they hope a soon-to-be-released mobile phone app will help save time and effort for both caseworkers and clients.

The app is still in its final testing stages, officials say, but they hope it will be available for clients to use by December.

“It enables us to use our resources more for helping people, and less time just managing paperwork,” said Ted Dallas, secretary of the state’s human services department.

Advocates have complained for years that the department is so understaffed that it has problems with basic customer service functions like answering phones and processing paperwork necessary for clients to obtain or keep benefits. They say they are hopeful the app could be a major improvement.

“In general, we are really pleased that they are taking this step,” said Louise Hayes, supervising attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which assists people with benefit issues.

A function that allows clients to electronically submit verification documents necessary for their benefits — such as a pay stub — could be major time savers for both state caseworkers and clients.

“It saves you from getting on the bus, taking your documents down to the office, putting them in the slot, getting a receipt, having the clerk pull them out of the slot, you know, scanning them, attaching them to the correct record. It gets rid of all that,” said Ken Munz, operations coordinator at Just Harvest, a group that assists people applying for food stamps.

Mr. Dallas said the goal is to allow clients to use the app to do things they would normally have to call or come in person to a county assistance office to do — update certain personal information like a change of address, or submit certain verification and identity documents by taking a photo and uploading it. He said officials believe this could lead to a dramatic reduction in the volume of paperwork that comes into county assistance offices, as well as reducing the number of in-person visits clients need to make.

“In addition to being a huge customer service improvement to folks … it will help change the way we do business,” he said.

The department estimates that over the next seven years the app could lead to $18 million in savings. It cost slightly less than $5 million to develop.

The app will be available in English and Spanish.

The app, myCOMPASS PA, will be available in the app store. Clients can download it onto their mobile phones and log in.

COMPASS stands for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Access to Social Services.

While the state does have a website that allows people to apply for benefits, officials say they hope the app will help them reach more people and be easier to use.

“We know that a lot of our folks have mobile devices, but a lot smaller number have desktop computers,” Mr. Dallas said. “This app is meant to reflect that reality.”

Other states have already taken this step. Pennsylvania’s app will be most closely modeled after Your Texas Benefits, the name of the app from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

In Massachusetts, clients can download the DTA Connect app to receive alerts and reminders about appointments, learn the status of documents they have sent, or get information about their benefit amount. It is a largely informational app and can’t be used to submit information, said Thomas Mills, spokesman for that state’s Department of Transitional Assistance.