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Mar 3, 2023

Joining Carol Pankow in the studio today are Cody Dixon, Director of Operations SARAWorks, and Susan Baker, Program Coordinator II, Alaska VR. SARA provides a solution to VR programs with a client engagement and communications system that automatically gathers needed information at the right time from consumers and providers without staff intervention. SARA uses artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing and complements CMS functionality. Alaska VR has been an early adapter from SARA's first introduction. Susan tells us how Alaska VR utilizes SARA daily, and Cody brings us up to date with all the latest integrations and new states coming on board with SARA.


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Full Transcript


SARA: Technology Solutions States Have Proven to Work -Alaska VR and SARA



Speaker1: Manager Minute brought to you by the VRTAC for Quality Management, Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time. Here is your host Carol Pankow.


Carol: Well, welcome to the Manager Minute. Joining me in the studio today are Cody Dixon, Director of Operations, SARAWorks, and Susan Baker, Program Coordinator II, Alaska VR. Thanks for joining me today, you guys. So, Cody, how are things going in the world of SARA?


Cody: Good. We've been extremely busy. We've got a number of new states that are coming on board that we're working with and a number of new features that we're rolling out. So really excited to be here with you today.


Carol: Glad to hear that. So, Susan, how are things going for you in Alaska?


Susan: Well, it's pretty good up here in sunny Alaska. Just kidding. It's about 15 degrees. We still love SARA. We're actually getting an upgrade this weekend that we're really looking forward to. Things are going great.


Carol: Awesome to hear that. Well, I'm in Minnesota, so I can empathize with the Alaska climate. Had some interesting winter weather this year for sure. So for some of our listeners, you may remember back to the days of WINTAC and a special project that was done to bring SARA to Voc Rehab, and the original idea was to provide a solution to VR programs that used this new kind of client engagement and communication system that automatically gathered needed information at the right time from consumers and providers without staff intervention. SARA uses artificial intelligence or AI and natural language processing and is complementary to a case management functionality. So if you fast forward seven years, SARA's really undergone some very cool changes and is once again part of a pilot program within our VRTAC for Quality Management. And I'm also really excited about hearing from a state that was at the forefront of using this and has remained a continued champion years later. So let's dig in. So, Cody, I'm going to turn to you first. Can you tell our listeners about yourself and what you do at SARA and a little more about your products?


Cody: Yes, absolutely. So I'm the director of operations for SARAWorks, and we are an extremely small team. We are growing. But essentially, historically, I've been responsible for all of our new customer implementations doing the training, the configuration of SARA, making sure that SARA is doing what it's supposed to do for the agency, and then of course, keeping track of our support staff for our wonderful service that we provide, working with our development team as well. So just kind of making sure that all the day to day stuff is running as it should. We've got our primary product, which is SARA, and SARA is our application for counselors and case managers. And it's used typically to stay in contact with clients or consumers that are receiving services under the idea that we're really trying to use SARA as a communication hub with the idea to bridge that connection gap in human services. We believe that the good technology can be used and is going to be essential for creating human connection so that people don't fall through the cracks. And that's kind of where SARA comes in.


Carol: Yeah, like that, that you use that term communication hub. That sums it up really well. So Susan, can you give our listeners a little more information about yourself? What's your role in Alaska? How many counselors do you have and the number of customers that you all serve?


Susan: Sure. I am a Jill of all trades up there for in Alaska, a program coordinator. So really what that means is responsible for our quality assurance, our program reporting, our data requirements, our policies and procedures. And I'm also in charge of our case management system, our SARA communication system, our SharePoint system. So there's quite a bit of an IT aspect software support that comes out of my role as well. We are, you know, a big state geographically, but a small state population wise. We always like to remind Texas of that, but we only have about 25 counselors spread out through the state, though. But that's over you know, we're talking potentially 2500, 3000 miles apart in some places. And right now, our open caseload right now is around 1000 - 1500. Yeah, we're small, but mighty.


Carol: Wow. That puts some perspective. I didn't realize you had 25 counselors across that expansive Alaska. So do folks have to, like, fly into places? Because I know some of your areas are so remote, how do they get to see certain customers?


Susan: Absolutely. Yes. We have a few counselors that are dedicated to serving our rural populations, flying into hubs like Barrow, Ketchikan, Pretty amazing. It's a kind of a unique situation. They're flying in for about a week, trying to get as many informational referrals out there, then to get as many applications as they can going. And if there are open cases in that area or village, they're trying to work them as well. We do a lot with SARA helping us keep in touch when we're not in the area.


Carol: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. That gives such an interesting perspective. So, Cody, I understand SARA's gone through some changes and can you tell us what happened with the company and like where you live right now, it's different.


Cody: Yeah, definitely. So back in September, SARA was acquired the company itself, the Career Index Corporation, the founders of SARA, was acquired by a company called Radical Health, which is a company that acquires software companies that are in the human services space and put together a new division called Radical Apps that SARA was the first product to fall into. And so under radical apps we have SARAWorks, which is how we've rebranded our company. So for some of our folks out there that recognize TCI or the Career Index we are now, SARAworks with our product, SARA. And under Radical, we are working to see how we can grow SARA's reach and help make an impact in other markets and other industries. Radical Health currently works with software companies that are in food banks and community food pantries and things like that, as well as foster care management, behavioral health and homeless management as well. So a couple of other areas that we feel that SARA could really make an impact. And as I mentioned earlier, we've been an extremely small team and so we didn't necessarily have the resources in place to make that happen and continue to see our vision grow. But with the help of Radical, we've got a roadmap to making that happen. And really just overall taking this concept of wanting to foster that connection in human services and helping clients feel like they're more than just a case ID and giving them that voice, using SARA to be able to maintain that connection with their agency and the service workers that are helping them.


Carol: Well, Cody, I remember back to my days in Minnesota and we were trying to get your product and there were definitely some challenges with IT resources. And I understand you have a new venture that eases the burden on IT resources. What is that all about?


Cody: Yeah, absolutely. We actually have a couple of things that we're working on in that regard. First of which was a strategic partnership that we entered into with Alliance Enterprises for their Aware case management solution. And so we are working with them at the moment on creating a way to interface the two systems together that eliminates the need for a state agency’s IT department to really be involved. Historically, we've relied upon the state agency to have to install a Windows service and maintain that service on a state server and things like that in order to get data to go back and forth between SARA and the system of record. So what we're working on with Alliance is to, number one, have that connection, bypass the need for the state agency to be involved. And then we're also working on a new API that will be more of a plug and play option for other agencies that might not utilize, Aware, maybe have something that's homegrown or one of the other larger vendors. So it's something that I'm really excited for. We are rolling into some testing right now and should have that solution rolled out by the end of quarter two.


Carol: Wow, that's pretty cool. That's a big deal. I think that'll be a game changer for folks. I know we have a lot of people that are with Alliance, but there are a lot of folks that are not probably half the country is not. It's probably about a half and a half deal. So having that option for other folks as well, I think that is definitely going to be of interest to our listeners. I personally love your whole communication aspect of this and you talked about that communication hub. Can you just explain that a little more like all the things that can go into that?


Cody: Yeah, absolutely. So we you know, we call SARA the communication hub and we continuously try to make improvements and enhancements and bring new features so that, you know, if you think of a way to stay in contact and connect with a client electronically, we want SARA to kind of be your go to source. So SARA has two components. There's an automated side of SARA, and then there's some manual tools that counselors and case managers can use to try and stay in contact. On the automated side of things, we actually configure SARA to typically follow a workflow of the process of the agency mirroring in SARA, what we call tracks, which are the case statuses to the system of record. And we train SARA to understand when clients need to be contacted, what it's regarding, and if there's any data or information that needs to be obtained from that individual in order to successfully move them on to the next case status. And with that, SARA utilizes email and text messaging to stay in contact, reach out and conduct interviews with the clients, find out how they're doing, and then, just like any good assistant would, generate alerts that go back to those counselors and case managers to inform them of what's going on with their client, as well as giving them information so they can make an informed decision of what action to take next.

Do I step in and now offer that direct client engagement? And that's where those manual tools come in. We've also got the options for staff to be able to compose emails and compose text messages directly from the SARA application. So from the comfort of their keyboard, they can be sending out messages. They don't have to have their own cell phone or a state agency issued cell phone. They can send out those messages directly through SARA. And then over time, they also start utilizing SARA for sending out emails. And the reason to do that is that everything that SARA does is going to automatically create case notes. So no longer does a counselor have to send out an email in Outlook or their provider of choice and then go back into their system of record and leave a case note about the email they just sent. They just send it off in. SARA It creates that case note. That case note goes from SARA back over to the system of record. So you can imagine the amount of time that is saved over time as staff start utilizing those features. Additionally, we have a document management center that we're actually rolling out this week that includes things like electronic signature. We've got an Outlook calendar integration.

SARA's really good at scheduling appointments and allowing opportunities for clients to reschedule appointments based upon counselor availability. And so we can connect with an Outlook calendar so that both the SARA calendar and the outlook calendar are in sync. And SARA truly knows, you know, when that counselor is available for appointments to be scheduled and rescheduled. And then we also have something that really came in handy during the beginning phases of the pandemic when agencies started working remotely but still trying to provide services. And that is a feature that we call ODIN, which is our on demand interview network, and it is a HIPAA compliant tele counseling platform so that counselors can conduct tele counseling sessions with up to nine participants at a time and providing them an opportunity to take case notes throughout that session that are only visible to them. And then at the end of the session, they click a button to save all those case notes. And there's one case note that goes into SARA that kind of documents what that session was regarding who the participants were that attended. And then all of the case notes that the counselor created. And then, of course, those case notes go back over to the system of record. So very cool stuff that we're that we're doing here at SARAWorks.


Carol: Yeah it sounds super exciting. I was sitting in my head thinking, you know, kind of ticking the boxes about how much time you would save with a number of those items. That would be pretty amazing. So, Susan, you have been around since the beginning of SARA. I remember you were part of the pilot states up in Alaska. And I talked actually to the Alaska team. I bet it was maybe, I don't know, 5 or 6 years ago when we were all in Oklahoma at a PEQA conference. And I wanted to find out, like, how did you like it, what was going well? And I know that you all had struggled with some upfront kind of the communication and the implementation of the product. So what are some of the lessons you have learned along the way as you've implemented this?


Susan: Yeah, sure. It's one of the questions I get from many states that reach out to me, and I bet we could have a whole separate podcast about lessons learned. But I do want to give a quick shout out to the Alaska team during that implementation time. It was exciting because we were helping build this product better, you know, like there were a handful of states that were just throwing more feedback back at Cody, Hey, let's try this. Hey, let's try this. And it's really cool to be a part of a product from the beginning and to say that Alaska VR agency was one of the agencies that helped kind of, you know, point it towards a really cool direction. Although I know Cody was always brainstorming, so don't want to take that away from him. But a quick shout out to Alaska VR for that. Hindsight's having stronger procedures and understanding your staff's capability in technology. Now, it's easy. Don't get me wrong, I love this product. I can't say enough about it. However, we do have to consider who we're serving and who our workforce is. So in hindsight, I wish I had prepared better procedures for them because it was scary at first. You know, change is hard. That would be the first one that I could go into. I often found myself saying, Well, what would you normally do when you get a message? And it was also during a time where we were just still kind of, you know, feeling it out. So if I had come on with SARA outside of that pilot world, I would have prepped with stronger instructions, if you will.


Carol: Sure, that makes some sense. I get that. So how are you using SARA today? Because Cody just talked about all these cool new things, like are you guys implementing some of that or. I know some things are rolling out shortly, but how are you? Yeah, how are you using it today?


Susan: Oh, our staff still rocks it. They're making appointments daily. I mean, how often we would get stood up pre-SARA to now is just so ridiculously less. I mean to have that reminder texts come in and remind the client that they have an appointment is just golden. We're kind of working with our IT to turn on that calendar integration. It's in progress, I'll say. But they would absolutely love that. That's kind of out of their hands at the moment. They are in it every day. New employees come in, we have training and it's a whole new feel about like people understand that the phone is dead. Mean, it's a little dramatic, you know, unless you're calling your doctor's office or your parents or family members or whatnot. But outside of that, I'm getting you know, I just got a reminder text from a chiropractor appointment. I have a couple of days, you know, the hair appointment that's around the corner. I mean, this is the age that we live in in terms of like helping us be where we need to be in one example. But on the other end, like, oh yeah, like I have this connection. I'm doing something with this place. And our clients, our clients really love it. You're going to have any type of survey you send out, you never know what kind of feedback you're going to get. But overwhelmingly, our clients enjoyed hearing like, okay, I've got something here, I've got a connection. So staff and clients do enjoy the product.


Carol: That's awesome to hear. I wondered about that, how your staff and clients were responding to that. So that is terrific. Well, Cody, I understand you also have some exciting new things happening. What are you able to say? The new states that are being rolled out, you talked about you have a number of them. I don't know if you're able to disclose or not, but sometimes folks love to hear like, who are all the people I can talk to about that are using this product?


Cody: Yeah, absolutely. One of our states we're working with right now is New Hampshire. They're actually working with us in conjunction with Alliance with the Aware Integration. And I think most of the customers or potential customers that we have at some point find their way to Susan and kind of lean on some of her expertise, as you know, with what Alaska has learned. And so we really value having Susan available to talk to a lot of these customers. Additionally, we are in the midst of rolling out Texas, so TWC, they are going through training with their statewide rollout right now that we hope to have finished in April. That's been a really exciting project for us, learning a lot along the way in terms of some additional areas that SARA might be able to help with down the road with different surveys and working with businesses and other employer vendors and things like that. So that's been exciting. And then we've got South Dakota and Maryland that are also coming up as well.


Carol: Wow, that's very cool. You know, I was just thinking about all the complexities of these different states. You know, Texas is ginormous and they're also ginormous as far as staff and clients, whereas Alaska is ginormous but maybe has a smaller population of people. But how this application works across anybody and thinking about a lot of our states that may be smaller, but they have a lot of rural components. I think that's very interesting because it fits all the different sizes for sure. Now we have, SARA included, just for full disclosure, as a special project within the VRTAC for quality management. Can you talk about that just for a minute, Cody, what that's all about?


Cody: Yes, absolutely. So the SARA portion of that project has actually allocated 220 SARA licenses, and that's how we market. SARA as a SaaS company is a subscription model and we've got 220 licenses that we're looking to disperse over 2 to 3 states that right now we are in the process of providing demonstrations, you know, working with business analysts and ITdepartments to determine what states might be a good fit to take on a SARA pilot. So that's very exciting. And we're hoping to have the states finalized here in the next month or two so that we can get rolling on those new SARA pilots.


Carol: Oh, that's cool. That's really cool. So, Susan, what advice would you give to new states that are either just getting started with the system or they're considering using this as a communication solution for them?


Susan: Well, it's funny because I just got a follow up email from Maryland this morning, Cody, because everyone does seem to find their way to me, and I love that because it's a conversation I can have with them that talks about, again, more of those lessons learned. Knowing your staff, knowing your population you serve, understanding who is it that is going to be your champions, What is your management structure? And start small. SARA In terms of Cody mentioned, there are two sides of SARA and there are two very different sides. I call them, you know, the automated side and the direct side, the direct side being the human, you know, shouting out those texts on the fly or hey, hey, you know, come get your bus pass, you know, things like that. You know, the quick human aspect. And then you have the automated side, which is kind of awesome because you'll find information that you had no idea was happening or out there. I've heard scenarios where SARA finds out the client's employed and we're like, Wait, what? So it's kind of great to catch up on that. And I think what people at least to have committed in your first step is you're looking and you're trying to figure out what you want that awesome automated side to do for you and is to start small. Don't try and have an awesome long conversation with the SARA system because it's cool that she can do that. And I apologize. I have been trying not to give pronouns to SARA, but after seven years just she has just come out of my mouth occasionally, but start small and include your counselors include your counselors include your counselors. They are the ones who are going to need to be your champions. Because as you're starting off with this system, you want that participant to engage with it. And if you're not presenting that information from a comfortable standpoint, meaning your assistant staff or your counselor staff who are first talking about SARA in maybe an intake appointment or some, you know, the first opportunity to speak about the system, you have to prepare your staff to be able to talk someone through that. That was something I didn't quite hit. Let's just say that was a swing and a miss, as that one was. So yeah, that's all I can think of at the moment. Really include your staff what you, meaning you know you at the quality or implementation level think might be really cool, may not be really cool. It's something you can get to I think like I'm on version four of what is known as the rules for SARA, meaning what the robotic side will have to say in a conversation. And the first time I did it was just sort of, I don't know, let's try this. And then then I got to realize, no, I got a few more revisions. So start small. Include your staff and it is pretty awesome.


Carol: I am really glad you said that. Include your staff because I remember because I talked to Kentucky and it was, I believe Nevada and then the Alaska folks and you all three had that similar experience where I think everybody was like, Woo, this is a great new thing. This is super exciting. Everybody's going to love it. Well, not everybody just loved it right off the get go because they didn't understand it and they hadn't been included in all the conversations. And I can see that happening. I would have that tendency to I'd be like, Woo, this is super exciting. We're going to do this really fun thing. And then you go, Oh my gosh, we got to get everybody on board with that. So I had heard that back in the day too, that to definitely talk with the counselors because you have to get them used to this idea because while it will help them, at first they're thinking, what? What on earth? Because don't you have to develop Susan some scripts or you know, like AI doesn't know what to exactly say. You do have to program that, correct?


Susan: That is correct, yes. You do want to prompt a path for certain questions that you ask. And what I learned over the years is and this I might want to say that, you know, this is perhaps unique to the VR world because SARA is applicable in other worlds outside of VR, right? So when we're thinking about the population that VR serves, we want to maybe make our questions to the point and as short as possible. You know, I'm thinking about keeping it at a grade level that is appropriate. Whereas if you're out maybe outside and you're dealing with a different population and then there's this ability to like, you could do so many things with it, you know, as long as you have that engaged person on the other end who's answering, I mean, you can ask and get so much information out of a text message. It is amazing. But what I learned just from knowing my client base is that less is more. I went to more specific questions. And if something didn't work out with that response, I just sort of kind of turn it back and say, okay, we're going to get with you. You know, like, let's not try and text anymore. Let's actually try and, you know, let's connect. But we wouldn't know or we wouldn't have that ability to say, Hey, let's connect if SARA hadn't started the conversation.


Carol: Right, yeah, no, I get that. I think that's just awesome advice. So, Susan, I think you were also the one I had heard that created this idea of having a SARA Summit quarterly with all the users. Can you tell me a little bit about that?


Susan: Yeah, sure. You know, I've been a customer of software and implementing software for over 20 years, and there's been, you know, a handful of vendors that, you know, really get that extra step, which is you got to embrace your customer and let them have perhaps a ground to just grumble and celebrate. But, you know, it comes to having a bit of a united front around the user, if you will, talking with other users of the company. How do you have this program or how is SARA doing that? You know, I feel like that is the next step that I think SARAworks is going towards and I'm so happy to help with if it comes to fruition because it is so cool as a person who is sometimes at least up in Alaska, I know my team, you know, we're trudging through something and we're, you know, trying to figure out if that's the setting that we want. And then all of a sudden, you know, I'm on a national call with like 50 other states that use this product. And we've got this like great conversation going and people are helping other people and people are like, Oh, yeah, heads up. This doesn't work. I mean, it's just a pool for knowledge. And I think that's a good step to move forward with SARAworks too.


Carol: Yeah, I think that'd be really smart because you look at all these new states coming on board and the one thing I've always loved about VR is how giving people are I mean, everybody wants to help other people out, and I love that. It isn't like, Oh, I know this and we created that and we're not going to help you. Everybody's like, Here, have it. You know, this is how we're doing it. So that is pretty cool.


Susan: Yeah, totally.


Carol: So, Susan, what is the number one thing you'd want people to take away from this conversation today? Like our listeners, What would be the number one thing you want them to take away?


Susan: Well, I struggled with this one when you sent this out, because I almost have two. My number one and I tell this to every state that is inquiring with me about SARA and it's kind of geeky. It's not flashy. It's the quality management side of me that's going to speak out for a minute. And it's the fact that we're required to check in with our clients a year after exit actually, you know, second, fourth quarter after exit. This is a federal requirement. And the thought of having our counselors manage what happens a year later after they close the client was, I can't I have no idea how other states are doing this. I have an automatic system that does it and I don't have to even think about it. And it's the most beautiful thing ever, done. I mean, I don't know what else to say. Like it's an entire data element of compliance that I barely even have to think about. It's beautiful. Thank you, Cody.


Carol: It makes me think of, like, boom, mic drop. That's the end.


Susan: And guess my number two is that there's a reason this started seven years ago, and it had to do with we need to communicate more with the individuals that we serve. I see it in case reviews that I do. And this is the tool. There's my other mic drop. They're out there, they're listening. You got to do it.


Carol: Absolutely. And you look at now the third thing that is rolling across the nation is really there are no staff. And so we need to keep in communication. We have less people to do so. So we've got to leverage other things to make that happen so that can continue to live into its mission. And we're trying to get people into competitive, integrated employment. And to do that, we need to be in contact with them.


Susan: Exactly.


Carol: And keep moving through that case. Absolutely.


Susan: Well, and I think just to add to it, it's important that at least from our standpoint, like this is not counseling. This doesn't count as a contact. We have trained our staff to say, SARA is that icebreaker and it helps you. Yes, keep in touch. But it by no means substitutes the actual counseling guidance that is required. You actually speaking with the client, not through text messaging, not through email. If anyone was listening thinking, well, are they counting that? No, not counting that as a contact at all. It just helps get in contact if need be.


Carol: Right. Well, and it helps to smooth out those contacts you need as you're chasing for things, you're chasing for a transcript, you're trying to chase people down for certain stuff. Those items, those kind of more busy calls that you have to do and all of that, it can help completely in that area. And like you said, the year after closure, like follow it up with people because that's tough to keep track of all of that.


Susan: Yeah., and I think the second day we turned on SARA, staff was saying, oh my gosh, I was about to close this client. I haven't heard from him. And I mean, it works, you know, it really does. And the fact that it keeps in touch with your clients and it's making you compliant with one of the most, like, strangely weird ways to track something a year later. God bless you, Cody. Right on.


Carol: So, Cody, what is the number one thing you'd like people to take away from this conversation today?


Cody: Well, Susan did a great job expressing it. You know, really, it's the fact that, like you mentioned, we're losing resources in terms of the number of staff, while the number of folks receiving services and needing services are increasing. So if, you know, agencies are looking for a digital assistant software that allows case managers and counselors to shift their focus, not make less work, not take things away, but really shift their focus from the administration to client outcomes by automating some of their communication and compliance. That's. SARA.


Carol: That's awesome. So, Cody, how can people get in contact with you for more information?


Cody: The best way is to go to our website. That's and you can request a demonstration and that comes directly to me. I can also be reached via email. Cody.Dixon, That's D i x o n, at


Carol: Thank you. And Susan, I'm sure they're going to be people that are going to want to reach out to you as well and listen to your sparkling story. I love it. You have a lot of high energy, which is great. So how could folks best get in contact with you?


Susan: I would say my email would be the best way to go. Susan.Baker, b a k e r,


Carol: Well, I sure appreciate you both being on today. I think this was an important conversation to have. I'm super excited to hear about all the upgrades and the ways that SARAWorks has improved and that Alaska State that's been in it from the beginning is still using this product. So good for you guys. I hope you have a great day. Thanks much.


Susan: Thanks for having me, Carol.


Cody: Thank you, Carol. Thank you, Susan.


Susan: Yep, Thank you.



Speaker1: Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time, brought to you by the VR TAC for Quality Management. Catch all of our podcast episodes by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening!