By Donald M. Fitch, MS
Center for Career Freedom
The purpose of this column is to assist providers and consumers to be more effective when negotiating with local government agencies for income, health care, housing, food, transportation, job training, employment and other social services.
The focus is on single adults (18-64) with a mental and/or physical disability, substance abuse issues and the homeless. The information is gleaned from government websites and local, state and federal government offices.
Tips for accessing benefits are based on assisting over nine hundred persons at the Center. Our experience is supplemented by regular mystery shopper, provider and consumer surveys.
Q. As Director of a Consumer Drop-in Center, I am responsible for identifying the needs of our members. How can I do this without spending a lot of time and money?
A. Identifying and prioritizing the members’ needs can be a simple two-step process; first compile a list of their needs at your next community meeting. Then, have the members rate their needs on importance, using a self-administered survey.
The goal is a short list of needs that are most important to most of your members. The challenge will be to “solve” and pilot test programs within your available time and funds. (Thirty minutes of Googling can often uncover programs that have stood the test of time).
For example, at the Center, when we asked some seventy consumers to check off their top five problems from a “laundry list” of issues, we learned the following: #1) “Not being able to find work” (84%). # 2) “Having a lot of anxiety, stress or depression” (80%). #3) “Not having enough money for food” (72%). #4) “Not having enough money for clothes and shoes” (60%). #5) “Not having enough money for housing and repairs” (56%).
The common theme was “not having enough money.” Several solutions were enacted; a Job Development Club, expansion of our food and clothing donations programs and development of a colorful Benefit Poster for our reception area to heighten awareness of available Benefit Programs.
Q. I have been considering hiring consumer/survivors to provide basic benefits assistance counseling but I am concerned they may be perceived as “not professional;” Do you have any evidence to support or refute this?
A. Our in-house research supports hiring consumers as peer counselors. We asked seventy-five recipients to rate six statements on whether they felt they were mostly true or false; “Services provided by former mental patients in self-help /peer/consumer/recipient organizations are”: “More caring because they understand what I have had to go through”; True (92%) False (8%). “More effective because they have “been there”; True (76%) False (24%). “Not as professional as others because they do not always have the same training”; True (23%) False (77%). “More street-smart; they know about more resources and how to access them”; True (76%) False (24%). “Not as objective as others, they tend to get overly emotional”; True (31%) False (69%).
Q. I have to draft a curriculum to train peer counselors on government benefits. Which benefits should it include?
A. Based on our interviews with some one-hundred fifty Consumers and Caseworkers, the ten most frequently used government benefit programs are: #1) Medicaid (92%) , #2) Social Security Income (SSI) (86%), #3) Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) (81%), #4) Food Stamps (73%), #5) ½ Bus Fare (72%), #6) Medicaid Van (71%), #7) Medicare (68%), #8) Section 8 (Housing) (63%), #9) VESID (Vocational Assistance)(71%), #10) Skills Training (60%).(Legal services were #11 at 57%)
Q. Where do Consumers and Caseworkers go to for information about government benefits?
A. Our research found the top three sources for Consumers are #1) “My Doctor/ Psychiatrist” (69%), #2) “My Caseworker” (60%) and #3) “My Therapist” (46%).
The top three sources for Caseworkers are #1) “Pamphlets/books” (65%), #2) “A Benefits Counselor” (55%), #3) “The Internet” (54%).
Q. It seems most Consumer recovery studies conducted by academics and government re s earcher s us e “Consumer Satisfaction” as the prime measure of a programs’ success. In your research, have you found “satisfaction” to be a valid measure?
A. Our research among hundreds of applicants has found “satisfaction” to be an inflated measure. For example,100% of the applicants to the Center’s Microsoft Business School said they were “very or somewhat satisfied” with the program even before they enrolled! (The measure may be a good fund raising tool however)
When Consumers rated sixty items on both satisfaction and importance we uncovered some very interesting dynamics. For example, 97% of the Consumers rated “my earning power” as “very important to my recovery” yet, only 15% were “very satisfied” with their earning power, a gap of 82 points. We believe this gap offers a programmatic opportunity.
Items rated “very important to my recovery” and “very satisfied with” include:
- My earning power (97/15)
- My emotional health (96/26)
- My physical health (95/30)
- My motivation level (95/30)
- My work skills (95/26)
- My finances (95/6)
- My rate of recovery (94/35)