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New Florida website for Medicaid, food assistance hit with early problems

Residents reported problems accessing the new system on the Florida Department of Children and Families’ Facebook page.
 
The Florida Department of Children and Families this week launched a new platform for government assistance programs sparking concern that some of Florida's poorest residents may have trouble applying for or renewing benefits.
The Florida Department of Children and Families this week launched a new platform for government assistance programs sparking concern that some of Florida's poorest residents may have trouble applying for or renewing benefits. [ Florida Department of Children and Families ]
Published Dec. 8, 2023|Updated Dec. 8, 2023

Florida launched a new computer system this week intended to make it easier to access government benefit programs including food assistance.

But problems with the system and a requirement that every recipient must re-register have sparked worries that some residents may struggle to obtain and keep benefits.

The new MyAccess platform was introduced Tuesday for residents to apply for and renew access to benefits including temporary cash assistance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — also known as food stamps — and Medicaid. The system, administered by the Florida Department of Children and Families, is designed to make it easier for those who rely on mobile phones to access benefits, a change welcomed by many nonprofit groups that work to feed and provide health care access to Florida’s poorest families.

But comments on the Department of Children and Families’ Facebook page made on the system’s first day expressed anger and frustration, as some users reported not being able to sign in or long wait times to get help through a call center.

“The new system is crud. I gave up,” one user posted. “I’ve called and it just says no one is available and hangs up over and over again,” another complained about the call center.

Comments posted on the Florida Department of Children and Families' Facebook page expressed frustration with the state's new government assistance online system.
Comments posted on the Florida Department of Children and Families' Facebook page expressed frustration with the state's new government assistance online system. [ Florida Department of Children and Families ]

Residents must create a new account and then link to data on their case that was copied from the old system.

The timing of the launch has also raised concern. It comes just three weeks before Christmas and while the state is still conducting the first eligibility check of roughly 5 million Medicaid recipients since the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Roughly 1 million Floridians have lost Medicaid coverage since the process began, according to an analysis by KFF Health News. More than half of those were terminated from the program not because they are no longer eligible, but for failing to respond to requests for information or other procedural issues. Some may be appealing the decision or reapplying, said Cindy Huddleston, senior policy analyst and an attorney with the Florida Policy Institute, an Orlando nonpartisan nonprofit.

“We’re already seeing hordes of people who have lost Medicaid because of procedural issues,” Huddleston said. “This new portal just comes at the worst possible time for a lot of people.”

Department of Children and Families officials declined to respond to questions about the timing of the launch and why it was necessary for recipients to re-register instead of their login information being migrated directly into the new platform. They said 240,000 users had already created new accounts as of Friday morning and that average call wait times were 4 minutes.

In a statement provided to the Tampa Bay Times, DCF spokesperson Miguel Nevarez said the upgrade means Floridians can complete applications and send required documents like pay stubs from a mobile phone. It will also allow users to reset and recover their passwords through email and text without having to speak with a call center agent.

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DCF employees also responded to some of the Facebook comments with suggested solutions to those having trouble logging into the platform.

“Individuals will have a seamless, guided process to create an account in the system which will link to their previous account and automatically import their information,” Nevarez said in an email. “In instances where an individual is having difficulty, the Department has created a special call center with almost 200 agents standing ready to assist.”

The new platform also includes features intended to protect against identity theft, including two-factor authentication, a feature often found on bank websites that requires the user to provide a temporary access code that is emailed or texted to them. A current email address is also required.

That could be a problem for some seniors and people with disabilities, said Rosy Bailey, project director with the Hispanic Services Council.

“Many of the individuals we serve, whether it be seniors or some Latinos, do not have email and they do not know how to operate email,” Bailey said.

Veronica Ortiz, a community health care worker with the Hispanic Services Council, assists a resident at ECHO of Brandon, a center that connects families with food and services.
Veronica Ortiz, a community health care worker with the Hispanic Services Council, assists a resident at ECHO of Brandon, a center that connects families with food and services. [ Hispanic Services Council ]

The council partners with DCF to provide community health workers, known as “promatoras,” to help Hillsborough County residents access services and benefits.

Some of those workers could not initially access the new platform on its first day, although the state responded quickly to calls for help, she said.

She said her staffers see a genuine benefit to a system that, once the kinks are worked out, will help those who rely on mobile phones and not computers to access the internet.

“In the long run it will be easier to fill out applications,” she said.