Hardship applicants still having problems: Vital Records ‘data loss’ causing login delay
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act Hardship Assistance Program was intended to be the fastest way to get emergency financial assistance to Diné but some enrolled members are having more trouble than others getting through the application process.
After a bumpy start to the Hardship Assistance application online portal opening on Nov. 2, with many applicants reporting an “invalid login” error message, last Thursday, the controller’s office explained in a press release that some applicants’ Certificate of Indian Blood and date of birth combinations are “not matching up or being verified” by the Navajo Office of Vital Records and Identification database.
The controller’s office confirmed the portal searches the Vital Records database for the CIB and DOB combinations to validate applicant identity before logging applicants into the portal. If the CIB information is not in the database, the user will receive a message stating, “This is not a valid login.”
Controller Pearline Kirk suggested some CIB data is missing from the Vital Records database, although evidently there are back-up hardcopy files that can be cross-referenced. “The issue with a lack of available vital statistics data stems from a recent data loss at the Navajo Nation Office of Vital Records and a lack of consistent updating over the course of several years,” said Kirk.
‘Malfunction caused smoke’
The Navajo Times sent questions to the president’s office and Vital Records, which is under the Division of Human Resources. Although the president’s office responded with a statement, it raised more questions and the Times is still awaiting a response to those questions.
The president’s office said, “According to (Navajo Office of Vital Records and Identification), there was data loss in 2014 when the enrollment database server was shut off by the Navajo Nation Fire Department due to battery backup unit malfunction, which caused smoke. The Office of the Controller, Baker Tilly and NOVRI is collecting the information from all NOVRI offices to upload into the enrollment database to mitigate and reduce the number of Invalid Login errors.”
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The president’s office also stated that Vital Records had discussed these issues with the controller’s office and its CARES Act contractor Baker Tilly prior to the online portal being opened.
When this reporter asked exactly how many records were missing from the Vital Records database and why the problem wasn’t anticipated prior to Hardship Assistance portal being opened, neither the president’s office nor the controller responded. Joshua Lavar Butler, public information officer for the controller’s office, said any questions relating to the Vital Records database should be directed to its director, Ron Duncan, who also did not respond to the Navajo Times.
“Given the significant time crunch and effort required to validate the CIB and update the database, the Office of the Controller has offered additional resources to the Office of Vital Records,” said Kirk.
Kirk added that Vital Records has reported they are “bombarded” with new enrollment requests and they have a limited amount of staff available on-site due to COVID-19 social distancing requirements.
Vital Records is not answering its phone and the voice mailbox is full.
The controller’s office said that despite the challenges with Vital Records, the Hardship Application portal has successfully processed more than 52,000 applications for nearly 79,000 applicants and the call center is staffed with more than 50 full-time workers managing a large influx of calls.
“They field more than 2,500 calls and 2,000 emails per day,” the controller’s office said.
Applicant Al Henderson, secretary/treasurer for the Dineh Chamber of Commerce, said after five days of struggling to log in to the Hardship portal, he finally got through to a person at the Hardship Assistance support hotline who was in Wisconsin. “The lady was very helpful and explained that if I give her my CIB and DOB and SSN and address she would send it to Navajo Nation Vital Records,” said Henderson. “She added, ‘The message you are getting is because you are not in their database.’”
The next day, Henderson received an email from the helpdesk with a similar message: “Due to a recent data loss at the Navajo Nation Office of Vital Records, your CIB and Date of Birth combination are missing from the Vital Records Database. We are coordinating directly with them to resolve it…
“If possible, please reply to this email with a picture, scan, or other electronic copy of your CIB document to help us move this process along more quickly,” the helpdesk said. “Please note that you won’t be able to access the application until the Office of Vital Records database is updated. Please try again in another week.”
Henderson said that at first he thought that the email was a “phishing” scam because it was requesting a copy of his CIB, containing his personal information, which caused him concern. Ultimately, he decided to fill out a paper application instead but had trouble finding one because his Twin Lakes Chapter was closed.
As of yesterday, Henderson said he had yet to find a location where he could get a paper application and was heading to Window Rock. “I cannot comprehend what is really happening with the way our Navajo Nation government operates, and I am concerned about other 65-and-over Navajo elders who may be having a problem with applying for Hardship Assistance,” said Henderson.
Additionally, now the controller’s office is saying that even paper applications can’t be processed until the Vital Records database is updated for those Navajo enrolled members who aren’t in it.
“The Office of the Controller is currently working on a communication feedback loop, given the volume,” Butler said on Tuesday. “Applicants are encouraged to wait a few days and try again, and if that doesn’t work then they would know it’s not fixed yet. The controller’s office is working on guidance of what to do when it starts to get too late to apply, such as mailing out a paper application and providing them a return address.”
According to the controller’s office, paper applications are still available at “participating” chapters and divisions in Window Rock for those 65 or older, with special needs or disabilities, and for members unable to file an online application.
Kirk reminds applicants that the Hardship Assistance Program is not first-come, first-served and every application will be provided equal consideration for the (up to) $1,500 payments for adults and $500 for minors. The actual amount depends on how much money will be diverted from projects that have no chance of being completed by the end of this month. As of right now, the application period is open through Nov. 30 and payments will be sent out by check beginning in December.
The online portal can be accessed at www.nnooc.org and www.navajo-nsn.gov. The controller’s office recommends that anyone who is still having problems logging on to the portal contact the Hardship Assistance helpdesk hotline at 833-282-7248 or NNCaresHelp@nnooc.org (open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.)