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Systems overload 

If you’re thinking of applying for public assistance, you might want to schedule your meeting well in advance. If you’re already scheduled for an appointment, set aside plenty of time to wait. This is the message being sent out throughout the county by the Department of Social Services as it prepares to overhaul its computer system, a move that will eventually allow the department to run with greater efficiency. In the short term, however, officials anticipate serious delays and lapses in regular services while employees undergo training to use the new system. The systems switch should be complete by May 1, although it could take months before county employees fully adjust to the new process.

 The changeover is part of a state-mandated program to update social services systems throughout the state. According to Lee Collins, the DSS director, the plan has been in the works for about five years now, though the state did not start implementing the change until last year. SLO is the 16th of 18 counties in the state to switch over to CalWIN (California Welfare Information Network), an automated eligibility system designed to streamline the process of providing clients with public assistance benefits. CalWIN is one of four systems offered to counties throughout the state.

 The transition to CalWIN has proved to be a challenge for several social services departments. Sacramento, the second county to move over to the system, faced some of the worst obstacles. Caseworkers and welfare attorneys criticized the new system for its complexity, and for flaws that led to clients losing their much-needed benefits.

“Sacramento was a disaster,� admits Collins, who adds that the capital city gradually worked through many of the bugs in the system, paving the way for smoother transitions by other counties. Tulare and Santa Barbara Counties, two of the most recent counties to make the switch, “were big successes,� he says.

 Roberta Mangini, project manager for SLO’s CalWIN implementation team, says SLO is actually benefiting from entering into the changeover late in the game. “Over the last year we’ve learned a lot of lessons,� she says. “As each county implements the system, the changes get easier and better. We are working well within our expected time frame.�

 Even after the transition is smoothed out, clients will have to adjust to some major changes. Initial meetings with social workers will be almost twice as long as before, which in some cases means that it could take four hours to sign up for benefits. Childcare is recommended. The upside is that the new system will provide caseworkers with a real-time calculation of clients’ eligibility, even providing information about benefits clients might not be applying for. “This will, ultimately, provide people with more of what they need, in a timelier fashion,� says Collins.

 The county is asking for patience and cooperation from beneficiaries while the department undergoes this major change. Questions about the upcoming delays may be directed to local DSS offices.
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