Artificial Intelligence

County DSS turns to artificial intelligence for help |

Greene County DSS Commissioner Kira Pospesel gave a presentation to the county’s Finance and County Services committees Monday that covered the state of department and proposed using AI to help with its understaffing issue. Both committees voted to move the measure to the full Legislature, which met Wednesday and approved the use of AI at DSS.

The Legislature voted 14-0 Wednesday to pass a resolution for a one-year pilot contract with an AI technology company.

In Pospesel’s presentation Monday, she showed lawmakers numbers that reflect the percentage of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance (TA) applications that are determined within the state’s 30-day required timeframe.

“They are not good,” she said. “They are the worst I have ever seen.”

Greene County TA applications determined within 30 days dropped from 79% in January to 63% in March. SNAP applications went from 67% to 47% during the same period. Meanwhile, the state average for TA applications determined within 30 days increased from 71% in January to 88% in March. Statewide SNAP application determinations went from 78% to 82% during those three months.

And in March, 24% of Greene County’s TA applications and 30% of its SNAP applications took more than 60 days to be determined, despite needing to be done within 30 days to reduce the risk of being sanctioned, Pospesel added.

The department has done many things to address the timeliness issue, but nothing has worked, she said.

“The harder we work, the worse the numbers get,” Pospesel said. “The biggest issue is the vacancy rate is 21 percent. I have everybody under the sun answering the phone, even my own secretary.

“That means I was pulling the eligibility staff out and they weren’t doing their eligibility determinations, so those numbers just continued to fall apart.”

Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore, said the lack of employees and not meeting deadlines are problems.

Pospesel is hoping the Ohio-based company TipCo Automated Systems may provide DSS a possible solution. The company offers an Eligibility Verification Assistant (EVA) service, which is an AI-powered virtual phone assistant specifically created to handle customer service and general information calls for human service agencies.

“This is probably a good thing,” Linger said. “It’s a trial to see what it can do.”

The EVA system has three components that include the EVA Phone, EVA Chat and EVA Rights and Responsibilities.

EVA Phone answers common questions that are not case specific, including department hours, how to apply for services, and where to look up benefit information. It can also provide real-time translation for incoming calls in 75 different languages.

EVA Chat assists staff through computers with a chat-box feature to quickly get answers to questions about state and federal guidelines, as well as internal policies.

The third feature provides a virtual phone assistant that has a primary task of reading the department’s rights and responsibilities documents to clients, and recording audio signatures to client understanding.

“It is not doing eligibility determination, it is not taking the place of staff,” Pospesel said. “It’s just working around the edges.”

Improving timeliness is about more than meeting state guidelines, she added. It is about freeing up staff to expedite eligibility for critical services and needs, such as food and housing.

“This is going to save a heck of a lot of time,” she said.

The state is supportive of the use of EVA as four counties are looking to use it. Greene, Clinton, Jefferson and Oswego counties are in the process of bringing its services on board, Pospesel said.

“Oswego just started, but they aren’t live yet,” she explained.

“Would the staff need training on this,” Legislator Matt Luvera, R-Catskill, asked.

The program can be complex. There are seven different modules, and if the county moves forward, the training and data input would take about a month and half, Pospesel said.

Pospesel said she’s looking to purchase two EVAs.

“Would this company offer the training, as part of the purchase?” Legislator Michael Bulich, R-Catskill, asked.

The company does provide training on the systems, Pospesel told the legislators. However, with concerns that AI is fallible, they’re looking at getting a one-year pilot program.

The pilot would be $37,500 and $15,000 for the second year.

“It’s a good idea to try,” Linger said. “If successful, and I already talked with the county administrator about this, but if it’s successful, we should have a policy in place.”

Both the county’s Finance Committee and County Services Committee voted to move the measure to the full Legislature for a vote that would include awarding a one-year pilot contract to TipCo for an amount not to exceed $37,500. The Legislature passed a resolution on Wednesday.

“EVA’s impact goes beyond improving agency efficiency,” the resolution states. “By reducing administrative burdens and manual processes, EVA enables agencies to expedite eligibility determinations, reducing food, medical, housing, and financial insecurities within communities; and it is the desire of the Greene County Legislature to explore innovative solutions that can lead to more efficient operations.”

Linger said he believes it’s a good investment and even though it’s important to have eyes on the system or work before it goes out, the county has to try it out to see if it works.


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