How to Get Accurate Reimbursement Claims in Your School Nutrition Program
There are a number of reasons why you want an accurate reimbursement claim. First, it keeps you from having to do it again. Remember that old saying, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” Additionally, accurate claiming is critical to a successful administrative review. However, the biggest reason to make sure they are accurate is that you might be leaving money on the table.
The difference between the NSLP full price reimbursement rate and the free reimbursement rate is $2.70 for the 2014-2015 school year. That can add up fast! Just miss 10 meals a day and that’s $27.00. Multiply that times 5 days a week and 40 weeks in a school year and you get $5,400 for the school year. So you ask, how do I make sure I’m getting all the reimbursement money I am allowed? Here is what it takes to create an accurate reimbursement claim.
Current Student Eligibility information
Accurate and quick Point of Service (POS) meal counts
Accurate collection procedures
Useful and comprehensive reports
Precise Edit Checks
Student Eligibility Information
School Food Authorities (SFAs) must have income eligibility or direct certification documentation on file for each student receiving a free or reduced-price meal. This data provides the number of eligible students in each category, which in turn supports your claim for Federal reimbursement.
Daily changes are big obstacles for accurate student eligibility information. You will have to account for student transfers and withdrawals plus changes in status due to verification, new applications, and even input directly from state and/or government agencies. Because of delays in processing you may have students being served with an out-of-date eligibility status.
Our saga begins
Imagine you have received a stack of applications. Because the person that manually processes those applications was sick, you have not been able to process them and send the updated eligibility status to your Point of Sale (POS) system. So now you have multiple days of meals served with the wrong status that will have to be removed and re-entered with the correct status. That’s time you probably don’t have because you are dealing with an order of apples that were overcharged, or any of the other crazy things you deal with on a daily basis. Ideally you want your POS system to deal with these backdated eligibility status changes automatically. However for many SFAs this is not the case and you must spend precious time correcting the meal count data. Lucky for you, the new POS system you implemented does just that, because it is integrated with the student eligibility system. So not only is the POS faster and more accurate than your old system, it is also helping you save time and eliminate errors. That’s a big step to easing your worries.
Accurate and Quick Point of Service Meal Counts
Meal counts must be taken at the point of service. The most likely location is the cafeteria, but it could be the classroom or hallway. This is the point where the staff determines if a reimbursable meal was served to an eligible student. So what do you do? You count reimbursable meals by category each and every day.
There are many ways to collect the necessary meal sales data.
You can use verbal identifiers or rosters to record the count. These can’t be lost, stolen or destroyed, like an ID card. The meal count documentation consists of names and numbers which are checked off a printed list.
Coded ID cards are a good way of recording meals as they make it more difficult to serve more than one reimbursable meal to a student. If they also include a photo they are not easily transferred. They can be incorporated as a function of the student ID card system thus saving money for the school district.
PIN Pads are another method of collecting student information. Like ID cards they provide an accurate meal count by category at the time of sale. Students don’t have to be in line in a particular order as they do with a roster. The line moves at the same pace even if the cashier doesn’t know the student.
A new option for recording meal sales is the use of vending machines to dispense a reimbursable meal. In this case a student enters an ID either through a PIN pad, card scan or key tag. The vending machine looks up the students’ information and if they haven’t previously received a meal, vends the meal and updates the meal count.
It should be noted that there are also a few methods that cannot be used to collect meal count data such as attendance counts, tray or entry counts, prepaid or charged meals counted on the day paid, non-reimbursable meals, and visual identification without backup.
Continuing the journey…
It has been a month now under your new computerized system. The high school is running more efficiently than ever with students entering their IDs on the dual pin pads. The number of kids trying to get a second meal has dropped considerably because the POS terminals are linked together. The students are raving about how easy it is to pick up a breakfast on the way to class from the vending machines you installed, and many are getting a meal that they used to skip. The elementary schools like the ease of having barcode scanners for their kids. Even if they have visiting students who forgot their ID they can do a quick lookup of the student from any school in the district. The cashiers particularly like entering meal counts by bringing up a classroom on the POS and selecting individuals on the POS terminal. The head cashier likes taking her tablet to the classroom and entering her afternoon snack sales.
Now it is time to start your first claim under the new system.
Useful and comprehensive reports
There are several reports available to help. Many help with the day-to-day running of the cafeteria such as a daily cash or cash reconciliation report to verify your receipts. You may not need that report for claims, but you still need to keep track of cash and payments.
There are some reports you may run on a daily basis, for example a report showing the number of meals sold by eligibility and type. You will also want that same report showing those counts for the entire claiming period. Although it is possible for you to combine data from various reports to provide claim data to your State Agency for reimbursement, a consolidated monthly reimbursement claim report (either by district or by site depending on your state requirements) generated by your POS system is ideal. In addition to the meal counts report, one report you will need for sure is a precise Edit Checks report.
Precise Edit Checks
An ‘Edit Check’ report indicates if you have exceeded the number of meals allowed for a particular category – remember you can’t claim more free or reduced-price meals than you have applications or other supporting documentation. Serving more than your average daily attendance in a category should be a red flag that needs verification.
The USDA requires that you adhere to the edit check procedure in the NSLP Part 210 documentation for each school or site. Basically you count the highest number of students in each category, and multiply by the attendance factor. You then compare those numbers to the daily meal counts. If you exceed the approved numbers you need to provide a justification as to why. One example of why you exceeded your attendance factor might be that pizza or another very popular item was on the menu so almost everybody ate in the cafeteria. It is important that you verify attendance with the registrar in this case to ensure that no students who were absent were recorded as being served (this should be documented).
There are other types of edit checks that should be looked at too. Counts that are always the same, counts equal to the number of meals delivered, or counts that are equal to the number of eligible students should be considered suspect. They may be legitimate counts but further investigation is needed.
Finishing the job…
It used to take you days to get your claim ready but now it is almost automatic. The biggest issue was getting all the corrections made that occurred throughout the month. That wasn’t an issue this time because all of the reports you use are online and available anytime. That allowed you to check daily activity and make sure all the managers are staying on top of their game. Any issues that did crop up were easily handled on the day they occurred rather than having to wait until the end of the month and trying to remember what happened 3 weeks ago. You quickly check to make sure that all of the month’s meal sales have been reconciled. You check the edit checks reports for the month and notice that the middle school exceeded their eligibility counts. But you’re not concerned because the manager documented her investigation and everything looks to be inline. You enter your claim counts on the form and submit it to the state office. You look at the clock and see it is 4 o’clock, pickup your keys and head home to see the family. That’s something you haven’t done on a claim day in years. Tomorrow you will worry about how to get the sodium content down to meet federal standards, but that’s another story for another day.
Now that we have covered the basics of accurate reimbursement claims, I hope you join me next time as we continue our journey. In my next blog I discuss the benefits of using reimbursement claim exports (instead of hand-entering data in your state system).
Do you have tips that will help others create accurate reimbursement claims? Please comment and let us know what you have found helpful in your operations (and feel free to mention some pitfalls to avoid!).