(TNS) — Butler County, Ohio, Job and Family Services has expanded how much their public assistance clients can access online and over the phone in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

JFS has issued $66.2 million in food stamps this year, and last month the total number of recipients was 39,387, slightly down from 40,401 in September.

The only online service available previously was Medicaid, but JFS Executive Director Bill Morrison said his department expanded the online and phone services near the beginning of the pandemic.

"We feel we ought to publicize this more so people know they have an option, that doesn't require them to leave their homes and go out in order to get benefits," Morrison said. "We're trying to create more awareness of it. What's taken some time is trying to take something that's pretty complex and make it simple." Assistant Director Shannon Glendon said people can apply for food stamps and Medicaid benefits online at Benefits.ohio.gov or over the phone by calling 844-640-6446.

Benefit verification does require documents such as a rent statement, but she said if clients have a smart phone, they can take a picture and send it to Verifications@jfs.ohio.gov or fax to 513-887-4334.

Morrison and Glendon relocated the JFS lobby to a conference room on the first floor of the Government Services Center in Hamilton early in the pandemic so people didn't have to take the elevators.

"Not only with this phone system that we've integrated, but that most people who visit our lobby could otherwise have their needs met either online or over the telephone," Glendon said. "We do have a lot of different self-service options and most of them are simple to use with access to a telephone or the internet."

Bret Crow, communications director for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, said the online services debuted in August 2018 and moved about a million cases to the online portal.

"This was a significant milestone to ensure vulnerable Ohioans were able to directly apply for and renew their food assistance, cash assistance, and Medicaid benefits on one system, 24/7, all online," Crow said "The migration of the SNAP and Ohio Works First cases to Ohio Benefits was part of a long-term initiative to simplify the benefit determination process, streamline state and local responsibility for eligibility determination, and modernize eligibility technology to improve Ohioans' customer experience."

Butler County JFS has transitioned from using multiple people on the same case — sometimes as many as 14 — to training workers in multiple areas and cutting down on the number involved. That came after the state ranked the agency low in seven of 16 categories in managing cases.

Morrison said the agency received a 100 percent score with no errors on the recent state management evaluation so it doesn't want to return to "case banking," or using more people on individual cases.

"Some of the way county shared services works, it's really designed for case banking," Morrison said. "We have to kind of twist it around to make it work with individual caseloads. But it has enough value that it's worth us making those twists. That's why we didn't want to jump all the way into it at the beginning."

They hope to keep the first floor lobby open, and County Administrator Judy Boyko earmarked $100,000 in federal CARES money — the commissioners still need to approve the project — to make renovations to accommodate that use. She said it is a work in progress.

"I've been working with Bill and his team to ensure that if the relocation happens, it's the most productive for JFS operations and CSEA operations," she said. "Yet least impactful to other offices and the community at large."

(c)2020 the Journal-News (Hamilton, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.