A woman received help filing taxes, and used the refund check to fix her car and buy diabetes medication for her son.
A student, recently diagnosed with breast cancer, discovered she was eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Those stories – and hundreds of others – come from The Benefit Bank of South Carolina. Now in its third year, the effort has helped low- and moderate-income families apply for nearly $65 million in federal support that may have gone unclaimed.
Officials say The Benefit Bank removes the obstacles that could prevent people from getting the help they need to move toward economic stability.
Launched in Ohio in 2006, The Benefit Bank operates in 10 states – including North Carolina and South Carolina. The service is free to individuals and works through volunteer counselors who use an online system to screen clients for eligibility. The program offers a simple, “one-stop-shop” application for assistance.
A $2 million grant from The Duke Endowment is supporting the North Carolina effort, which began in April 2010. It’s managed by MDC, a nonprofit in Durham that helps underserved people and communities.
In South Carolina, The Benefit Bank began operating out of the S. C. Office of Rural Health in October 2009 through funding from the BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation. The Duke Endowment gave a $1.8 million grant to expand the program statewide.
“We all know people who have lost their jobs who never would have thought that they were going to need government assistance,” says Graham Adams, chief executive officer of the S.C. Office of Rural Health. “This can help them find the tools they need to get back on track.”
‘Worried, Sad Faces’
In South Carolina, Benefit Bank volunteers help clients at public libraries, medical centers, community colleges, churches, food banks and other sites. The goal is to offer the program where people “live, work, play, pray and learn.”
“The first year, we tried to place a site in every county,” says Tricia Richardson, The Benefit Bank’s director at the Office of Rural Health. “Now we are really focusing on where the people go and who the people trust in those areas. The sites are the key to the program’s success.”
In the Tri-County region near Charleston, for example, the program is spearheaded through the Trident United Way. John Boyle, the regional coordinator, trains volunteers to become Benefit Bank counselors.
“The more people we can put on the ground, the bigger the effect is going to be,” he says. “People are constantly slipping through the cracks. But with The Benefit Bank, we offer our services where they are, and we meet them with open arms.”
In the Aiken area, near the mid-point of South Carolina’s Georgia border, the Daughters of Charity offers The Benefit Bank at a Catholic center, at senior living communities, and at apartment complexes for low-income families. Seven people work as Benefit Bank counselors through the center.
“When people come to us, they come in with worried, sad faces,” says Bill Cobbs, who volunteers with his wife, Jackie. “Some of them have lost hope. They tell us, ‘We’re living in a car,’ or ‘We’re boarding with friends and the house is too small for us all.’ Many times, they find out through The Benefit Bank that they qualify for food stamps or medical assistance, and they tell us what a difference it will make.”
John Boyle hears that, too. “The results from sitting down with a Benefit Bank volunteer can bring people out of crisis to a better place,” he says.
Putting Technology to Work
With more volunteers being trained, The Benefit Bank of South Carolina is trying to make sure that people in need know they have a helping hand to turn to.
“This program definitely works,” Jackie Cobb says. “We’re finding so many people who haven’t heard they qualify for help. We just need to get the word out.”
The Benefit Bank of South Carolina is also working to implement a recent grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The $2.3 million award will help modernize technology and establish five new Benefit Bank sites per month in underserved areas to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the Medicaid enrollment process for eligible children.
Benefit Bank volunteers began electronic application submissions into the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Medicaid system in July 2012. When electronic submission of supporting documents is added in the fall, South Carolina will be the first state to offer this service.
Using The Benefit Bank system, along with streamlined technology, will provide relief to eligibility workers who struggle with growing caseloads and paperwork overload – and help ensure that more children have the health care they need.
“Keeping Americans healthy from a young age is the right thing to do, and it saves money by avoiding preventable diseases and conditions as they get older,” says U.S. Health and Human Services Director Kathleen Sebelius. “The activities we are funding will help eligible children get covered, stay healthy and prepare them to succeed in school.”
Lin B. Hollowell III
Director of Health Care