Monday, November 16, 2009

Ten Ways To Make Navigating The System Easier

By Barbara Davis

In today’s economy, more people without jobs are feeling the need to jump through a variety of hoops in order to get financial assistance, housing, food stamps and other services. This can be an overwhelming and frustrating process for anyone. For individuals with disabilities or the parents of young children with disabilities it can be a nightmare. The application process for disability benefits, health care, accessible housing, attendant care, housekeeping assistance, various therapies (speech, occupational, physical and counseling) and other services can be extremely daunting. Add the hassle of getting accommodations for appointments into the mix and well, it’s not a pretty picture.

With a little creativity and some planning, there are ways to make this process easier.

Get a loose-leaf binder and fix it up so that you can put everything you need in one place

Create pockets to hold envelopes and stamps to be used for mailing completed forms. Use sheet protectors for documents such as birth certificates, shot records, school records and others. Keep a calendar for tracking appointments and an address book (with phone numbers and addresses of schools, service providers, etc.) in the binder also. Include a notebook in your binder for writing questions you may have or information you need to remember. If you have more than one child, or you are receiving multiple services, keep several of these binders on hand.

Rely on 211 if it is available

If you are a “systems navigator veteran” you may think you are fully versed on programs, services and resources in your area. However, new services are often added and old ones are sometimes dropped when funding ends. Newbies to the system may not have a clue where to start. Using 211 can be a lifesaver for both “veterans” to the system and newbies.

Join Support Groups

Long-term members of support groups have become experts at navigating the system and finding resources for themselves or their families. They can help newbies and each other find appropriate health care providers, support services, recreational activities and resources. If you are a parent of a child with disabilities, joining a support group specific to your child’s disability can provide information and support to help with schools, healthcare, locating adequate daycare, and many other issues. Adults often find such support groups to be beneficial socially as well, which can be a great stress-reliever in these difficult times.

If possible, set aside the same day each week for appointments

It will be much easier to make, remember and keep appointments if all of your appointments are on the same day of each week, or the same several days, if necessary. For example, if your parent/teacher conferences usually get scheduled on Fridays, try to schedule all appointments on Fridays. If you have to take your kids for their allergy shots on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons, try to schedule other appointments for earlier on one of those days. Obviously it may not be possible to always schedule appointments this way, but the more often you can do it, the easier it makes it for you.

If there is an overwhelming amount of paperwork to be completed at the same time for different service providers, work a little bit on each form, every day, until it all gets done

Most paperwork will be redundant. Nearly all of them will want your social security number, birthdates, physicians’ names and addresses, your name, address, and phone number, and the same information for other members of the family. If you allot yourself a certain amount of time each day, you can easily select sections of each form to complete. On the first day you can complete the sections requiring information you can retrieve from memory. During the ensuing days, you can pick sections requiring you to look up information, such as previous hospital stays. Work in this way until you get all the forms completed and in the mail.

Keep copies of all completed forms

If you have to look up your bank account number, your doctor’s address and phone number, or any other piece of information in order to complete a form, keep a copy of the form in your systems binder. By doing this, you will save yourself from having to look up the information again for another service application. If you are lacking in organizational skills, ask a family member, friend or caseworker who is organized to keep copies for you.

Be a packrat for awhile

You never know when a service provider is going to want your child’s shot records from five years ago, or your income tax papers from three years before. It pays to keep any of these types of documents on hand for at least five years or longer. In some cases, such as with school transcripts, you may want to keep the documents permanently.

Be cautious with your systems binder

Whether you keep a systems binder or not, chances are you will be carrying documents with sensitive information from place to place. Keep in mind that most of these forms and documents will contain your social security number and birth date. Keep these documents in your sight at all times when you are away from home. In the home, keep them in a safe place, preferably one with a lock on it.

Let Google be your friend

The internet is an excellent source for looking up directions, addresses, phone numbers and websites for service providers. In many cases, forms, documents and applications can be printed off of these websites. If you MapQuest any directions to a service provider, print them out to keep in your systems binder for future reference. You will also want to print out the instructions and regulations found on the website for the service you are applying for, and store these in your binder.

Delegate some of the load to others

If you are truly overwhelmed, ask a friend, family member or case manager to help you. Case managers and social workers have been instrumental in helping me to complete a mountain of forms. My grandmother kept my sons occupied while I completed forms, and friends provided sound advice on what to write on the forms. In my experience, everyone was more than happy to help. By accepting this help with gratitude, I was able to get through the process much more smoothly than I would have on my own.

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