Government assistance is designed to be a lifeline, alleviating some of the financial, medical, and emotional hardships that create challenges for families in crisis.  For parents of children with disabilities and special medical needs, programs like Medicaid, Baby Your Baby, and Head Start can make all the difference in the world.  Too often, however, just finding and applying for those programs can be a major problem by itself, requiring hours of researching, running-around, and filling out forms.

“Applying for public programs can be extremely confusing and cumbersome for families,” said USU researcher Adrienne Akers.  “The names of the most-used programs, even Medicaid, are not the same from state to state, so just knowing what is available can be difficult.  Add to that the chance that most families applying for services are already dealing with other time-consuming issues, such as a medical complication or skilled child care, and obtaining assistance can be nearly impossible.”

In 2001, Akers and Roberts were also hard at work to help Utah’s public service agencies in developing an interagency application process.  They had received a grant from the Federal Maternal and Child Health Bureau to streamline state services, but they were just beginning the process.

That’s when they met two twenty-something social services workers, Nathan Garn and Darren Labrum,  from Utah County, who noticed the overly complicated process that families faced. Coincidentally, Garn’s wife delivered a premature baby, causing them to apply for several of those programs.  He was spurned into action.

Garn and Labrum developed a prototype for a web-based  process to consolidate the application process into a single questionnaire designed to help families complete the paperwork for multiple state service programs.

Although the prototype program was in its infant stages, Akers and Richard Roberts, both of USU’s Center for Persons with Disabilities, were excited right away when they saw it at an interagency conference.

“I wasn’t smart enough to think of it, but I was smart enough to recognize a great idea when I saw it,” said Akers.

“Initially, we had envisioned a combined paper-based application—another form to fill out, just consolidated,” said Roberts.  “Putting the system online was the perfect solution.  It changed our mindset of how to make the process easier for families, creating several advantages compared to a paper system.”  Akers and Roberts went on to acquire the rights to the prototype so they could use it as the basis for streamlining the process in Utah.

After 18 months of development, the Universal Application System (UAS), branded as UtahCLICKS in Utah, went live in 2005.  With one application, it allows Utahns to apply for six public programs: Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Baby Your Baby, Early Head Start/Head Start, Children with Special Health Care Needs (CSHCN), and Baby Watch/Early Intervention.

With UtahCLICKS, applicants can log onto www.utahclicks.org and answer a series of screening questions, which will generate a list of programs for which they might be eligible.  The person then chooses which programs to apply for, and questions are compiled from the selected applications.  The questions are reorganized and displayed by topic, and each question is asked only once.

Chris Schofield currently serves as the lead developer of the UAS and is the “brains of the operation.”  Although the typical UtahCLICKS application takes less than an hour to complete, the user creates an account to save the information and can come back later to complete it or make changes.

“In addition to simply streamlining the process and eliminating redundant information collection, the UAS has several other important benefits,” said Roberts.  “For instance, we noticed right away that an online system is great for families that can’t make it to a traditional office during daytime hours.  For those families with young children, they can work on it anytime—after their kids have gone to sleep, or when their kids wake them in the middle of the night.”

As they worked to improve the application process, the project team also recognized the importance of working collaboratively with the state, with families, and care providers.

“With everybody’s input, we were able to work together to make it happen,” said Roberts.  “That in itself is a new thing in this field.”

Because of that collaboration, the UAS is beneficial for the people, as well as the state programs themselves.

“The UAS dovetails well with existing services because it fills out the necessary paperwork—and it’s legible,” said Roberts.  “Also, because service providers don’t have to spend as much time handing out applications and dealing with office foot traffic, they are able to focus more of their time on helping families get what they need.”

“A unique aspect of the UAS is that it focuses on the needs of the consumer rather than the needs of the agency,” said Schofield.  “Other systems focus on agency efficiency rather than consumer usability.”

The true beauty of the UAS, however, is the cost of implementation.  While other similar systems cost tens of millions to develop and install, the universal application system cost less than $1 million from start to finish.

“It’s so inexpensive because we didn’t bite off the whole elephant and try to solve all the problems of the Western world,” said Roberts.  “We chose to solve a very specific problem, government service applications, and we tailored our system for that.”

“We’ve learned that it’s most important to do things that are possible,” said Akers.  “We’ve kept close to that, and we’ve stayed on message.”

Another cost-cutting measure Akers and Roberts employed was to make use of talented student researchers to do the bulk of the programming.  Over the course of the project, about 12 students participated in the UAS development.
“The tremendous amount of experience and knowledge that our student programmers—who are now professional employees— brought to this project is a tribute to Utah State,” said Akers.  “We’ve had an incredible group of programmers.”

The future is bright for the UAS.  With limited advertising, there has been a steady growth of UtahCLICKS users.  Now, about 15 percent of Utah Medicaid applications are completed with UtahCLICKS, more than triple what it was six months ago.

The system also received a 2006 Innovations Award from the Council of State Governments, which was established to create greater visibility to exemplary state programs and to help facilitate the transfer of those programs to other states.
The UAS has also received a Utah Centers of Excellence business team grant, which will help Akers and Roberts market and distribute the program to customers in other states.  Already, Oregon, Kansas, Arizona and Indiana have expressed interest in adopting the program.

“With state services, there are lots of families that end up falling through the cracks,” said Akers.  “It’s really gratifying to have something so successful that helps solve some of that.  With this system, everybody wins.”