Employers key in driving child support collections to families

Gears illustrationThe nation’s employers are a key partner in the child support program. Employers conduct core child support functions, which include reporting newly hired employees, implementing child support and medical support orders, and remitting child support payments.

The OCSE FY 2012 preliminary data report shows that employers remitted 72 percent of all child support payments, or $22.9 billion. The FY 2013 preliminary report indicates that employers remitted 74 percent of all child support payments, and employers reported 53.52 million new hires.

Quite simply, we could not collect and disburse more than $30 billion every year without employers. As child support professionals, we all thank employers for their huge contributions to this program.

In partnership with state child support agencies, OCSE has streamlined processes that help both employers and states gain efficiency in exchanging information and collecting payments. The e-IWO (electronic income withholding order) is the gold standard for transmitting uniform, secure information and reducing costs. Thirty-one states (representing 76.2 percent of the national child support caseload) and 566 employers (representing 6,290 Federal Employer Identification Numbers of parent companies and their subsidiaries) use this electronic process.

Other electronic processes include the Debt Inquiry Service which allows employers to report upcoming bonus and lump sum payments to many states at once. Forty-seven states and territories and 80 employers use the Debt Inquiry Service. This June we will implement electronic terminations (eTerm) to allow employers to notify states about employee terminations or let states know that an individual never worked for them.

States are piloting initiatives that will streamline more processes. Oklahoma Child Support Services transitions custodial parents who close their child support cases but wish to retain an income withholding by sending a new IWO to the employer for the custodial parent. They are expanding this initiative by adding IWO instructions to the pro se section of their website to help parents initiate, amend, or terminate their IWO cases. “Healthy Families” is Oklahoma’s new motto, and they are helping to achieve that by assisting pro se customers.

Employers do have concerns about some state practices in income withholding. Omitting full Social Security numbers, adding state-specific requirements such as periodic step-downs in amounts, and requiring the full amount of the order each month when the employer’s pay cycle is weekly or bi-weekly require extra administrative work from employers. They believe that these requirements move away from a standard form with standard wording and requirements. A November 2013 article published by the American Payroll Association, “States Still Trying Runarounds on Federal Child Support IWO,” documents some of the above.

We hope to clarify some of these concerns when we publish the revised Income Withholding for Support (IWO) form this May.

To offer a forum for discussions between states and employers on these and other important issues, the OCSE Employer Services team planned an Employer Symposium for May 22, immediately following the ERICSA (Eastern Regional Interstate Child Support Association) conference. ERICSA will feature an employer track on the final day of the conference to welcome interaction. We hope that many states and employers will join us  to continue discussing ways to improve our outreach to families and employers.

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Technology – the ‘band boards’ of our program

Illustration of computer monitor, construction hat and barrier standAbout 10 years ago, we decided to remodel our house—mostly infrastructure work. We decided to replace the roof and siding, install modern doors, put in more windows, and—the fun project—remodel the kitchen. 

One morning, our contractor said, “You need to replace the band boards.” I shrugged, and said, “Ok, how much will that cost?” He repeated with some urgency, “You need to replace your band boards now. They have rotted.” He paused, cleared his throat, and said, “Do you know what a band board is?” I shook my head. He said, “The band boards are the only thing attaching the second floor to the first floor.” Well, that little item was not in the budget. But I told him to fix the band boards first.

If customer service is the door to the child support program, and family-centered strategies are the windows to the rest of the world, technology is the band boards. And if the band boards need attention, that has to be the first priority for state child support programs. It’s clear that fixing the band boards, or in our case, replacing our legacy systems and technologies, is the most pressing need and top priority for many state child support agencies. In most states, child support computer systems are 15 years old.

Some of the questions we’ve heard time and again at OCSE are: “Can I use Commercial-Off-The-Shelf or ‘COTS’ software to build it?”; “What are the best new systems out there in the last five years that I might be able to leverage for my own replacement project?”; “How do I decide what the best option is for my program, my state?”; and of course, the question we hear most often, “Where do I begin?”

In the last five years, OCSE has given states more flexibility and opportunity to upgrade technology. Technology options are more flexible and modular than ever before. In 2010, we reformed the Advance Planning Document (APD) federal approval process to recognize the ongoing improvements in technology, and to give states more flexibility on low-risk projects. Under the APD process, states can now submit a feasibility study to define possible solutions, and compare, evaluate, and ultimately identify your best value to a new child support system. With an acceptable feasibility study comes not only substantial federal funding, but also significant technical assistance from OCSE throughout the life of the state’s system development project.

Recent OCSE guidance can help states take advantage of the full array of new and evolving technology products and services that can support the efficient operation and administration of not only child support programs, but also Child Welfare, Medicaid and Food Stamp programs.

We worked with a number of other federal human service programs and their state counterparts to design a comprehensive architectural framework to facilitate information sharing, improve service delivery, prevent fraud, and provide better outcomes for children and families. Called the National Human Services Interoperability Architecture (NHSIA), it brings together pieces from other architecture models such as the Federal Enterprise Architecture (FEA). NHSIA offers a foundation for common understanding, interoperability, standards, and reuse.

We also began working on a method for ensuring a reusable, repeatable standard for exchanging data between systems through the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM). 

Finally, we continue our focus on delivering to our state and tribal programs the most timely, accurate technical assistance on technology-related issues. Whether you seek the advice of the technology staffs in our federal or state systems divisions here in OCSE, consult with staff in another state that has tackled a major system replacement project, or rely on your state’s knowledgeable information technology people, the idea of replacing your child support system should not be as daunting as it was 10 or 15 years ago. 

Think of your child support program like you do house renovations—are you in need of a little paint and caulk, are you modernizing the windows and doors, and putting in a new kitchen—or is replacing the band boards your first order of business? We can help.

I invite the child support community of workers to submit a comment on this blog, or contact joseph.bodmer@acf.hhs.gov, director of the OCSE Division of State and Tribal Systems, for more information.

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History demonstrates child support lifts children out of poverty

Logo text: War on Poverty 50 YearsFor poor families in America, 1964 was a defining year because it set the stage for many of the social safety net programs we have today, including the child support program. While our program was not enacted for another decade, its establishment was part of the broader agenda to alleviate poverty in America.

In 1960, 27 percent of all children and 67 percent of black children were living in poverty. When President John F. Kennedy died in November 1963, Lyndon Johnson inherited a nation highly divided, with social programs that failed its poorest citizens. In his Jan. 8, 1964, State of the Union Address, President Johnson announced that his administration was declaring “a war on poverty in America,” and he urged Congress and the American public to join him in his effort. This became known as the War on Poverty.

During the speech, Johnson outlined his plan: “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it. No single piece of legislation, however, is going to suffice.” Over the next several years, the president pushed through a variety of legislation that set out social services programs.

Two of those initial pieces of legislation that were important for child support were the August 1964 Economic Opportunity Act that created programs such as Head Start and the Food Stamp Act, which made the existing food stamp pilot program permanent, and the 1965 Amendments to the Social Security Act, which brought health care to millions because it gave us the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Other major anti-poverty programs followed in the 1970s, including the Supplemental Security Income program (established in 1972) and the Earned Income Tax Credit (established in 1975).  Both of these programs are now considered key elements of our social safety net, lifting millions of people out of poverty.

The child support program was part of the 1970s wave of anti-poverty programs. Enacted in 1975, our program has grown dramatically. In FY 2012, we delivered about $26 billion in child support to families in the program and another $4 billion to families outside it. That year, child support lifted nearly one million people out of poverty. Today, we serve 1 in 4 children and 1 in 2 poor children in the United States, three territories, and many Native American tribes.

Although the child support program is not means-tested like other social safety netScreenshot of report: Custodial Parents Living in Poverty programs, families served by the program tend to be poor or have relatively low incomes. A recent report shows that in 2009, 63 percent of the families in the child support program had incomes below 200 percent of the poverty threshold, and 89 percent had incomes below 400 percent of the poverty threshold (see the report on the OCSE website).

Moreover, families eligible for child support are often the same families helped by other social safety net programs. A new OCSE Story Behind the Numbers fact sheet shows that 4.2 million custodial families were poor in 2011. Nearly all of these families are headed by a female custodial parent. Many are young, never married, and a member of a minority. Most have two or more children eligible for child support. These families struggle to make ends meet.

When poor families receive child support, it represents a large percent of their income. In 2011, poor custodial families who received child support collected $4,503, on average, representing 52 percent of the average income of poor custodial parents. And these figures increased between 2009 and 2011. In 2009, poor custodial families who received child support got, on average $3,909, representing 45 percent of the average income of poor custodial parents.

As we move forward, the child support program will continue to play a key role in the War on Poverty, delivering child support to disadvantaged families in tough budgetary times. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, the Child Support Report will feature more articles this year that further highlight the role that child support plays in lifting people out of poverty.

 

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Ten challenges for the New Year

"What's Next" headline in newspaperIn my previous Commissioner’s Voice column, I talked about the three generations in our society and three generations of our child support program and how the generational shifts in our society have impacted the way we do business. I gave examples of how you, the managers and staff in child support agencies, are addressing the changes in our caseload in innovative ways.

The members of the rising generation in our society—and in our program—expect clear information. They expect respect. They expect resources. And they expect results. In OCSE, we are beginning a new national strategic planning process for 2015-2019, involving all state and tribal child support directors. We want to use this process to help us position the child support program for the future. We have challenges ahead, but also a great commitment to our mission and the people we serve.

What do we need to accomplish as we face the third generation of our program? As we start the New Year, please consider these 10 challenges. We need to:

  1. Modernize our systems, automate as much as we can, maintain strong security controls, and figure out the right balance between data privacy and data sharing.
  2. Update our communications, customer service, case management, and service delivery approaches for diverse families to get the best results for this generation.
  3. Plan for generational succession in our offices as the people who built this program retire.
  4. Improve interstate enforcement, the last frontier, and develop effective federal/state/tribal/international case processing procedures.
  5. Modernize our laws, guidelines, and judicial processes, including updating our medical support, policies, and routine use of contempt hearings.
  6. Set accurate orders based on real income, reduce reliance on imputed income, keep orders accurate, and reduce state debt on the books.
  7. Pay all of the money we collect to families and address the loss of revenue involved in shifting to 100% family distribution policies.
  8. Figure out how we leverage and coordinate employment, parenting time, health care, and other services for those parents who need help.
  9. Make the most of the political credibility we’ve established due to the work of the last two generations by carrying it into the communities and parents we serve.
  10. Accomplish all of this with constrained resources.

I know we can do it.

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Serving three generations of families

Young man and boy (2-4), drawing on wall with chalk, rear viewThe need for child support is as old as history. Families have always been complicated and diverse. But the way we obtain support for children has to change with every generation, as each faces different challenges, has different values, and has different families. What changes does the rising generation of parents in our caseload face?

  • Economic opportunity: We see a widening social divide in economic opportunity: the wage gap is growing. And a widening social divide in family stability: disparities in children’s life chances are growing.
  • Labor market: There are fewer stable jobs for low-skilled workers. Available jobs for low-skilled workers are lower-paying, with few career advancement opportunities and no benefits.
  • Education and job path for men and women: 20 percent of men in their prime working years are not working. (When I was growing up in the 1950s, 5 percent of men were not working.) Over the past 25 years, we’ve seen a steep increase in women’s employment, but men’s employment fell. Although a gender wage gap remains, women’s wages have risen and men’s have fallen. Men, particularly men of color, are much more likely to have been incarcerated, further reducing their job and family opportunities.   
  • Family structures: Complex families involve multiple partners, multiple parents, and more grandparents and relatives raising children. More children are born outside of marriage. In fact, the majority of all children born to mothers under 30 in this country are born outside of marriage. Same-sex marriage, assisted reproduction, and open adoption are additional facets of modern family life. 
  • Two words, smart phones: The rising generation uses technology to obtain information and connect to others. Among low-income young people, smart phones are the connection to the outside world.  This generational shift profoundly impacts how the child support program can successfully interact with young parents.

The new generation

We are entering the third generation of our program. Our basic program infrastructure built in 1975 addressed an earlier generation of parents, the divorce generation. We need to rethink our business model and adapt our program to the realities of this generation. Our main challenge is to collect the money and encourage employment and reinforce positive family relationships. Fewer resources are the new normal, so we need pragmatic, cost-effective, results-oriented approaches. 

All over the country, I see child support agencies step up to the plate to meet the needs of this generation. The basic building blocks for meeting the challenges of today are:

  • Focus on the fundamentals (systems, employers, customer service)
  • Get the order right (based on real income, not imputed)
  • Link to services (including jobs, parenting time, and health care)

 I see child support agencies implementing technology innovations, for example:

  • Interactive websites and apps
  • Streamlined automated workflow
  • Data analytics (caseworker-level data, predictive scoring, caseload stratification)
  • Continuous review and adjustment
  • Document management (document imaging, e-filing)
  • OCSE’s portal technology, including e-IWO

 And I see child support agencies implementing people innovations, for example:

  • Building human relationships, including complex case management
  • Debt reduction
  • Emphasis on parenting
  • Employment and wrap-around services
  • Judicial problem-solving courts
  • Reduced use of expensive contempt hearings
  • More focus on encouraging behavioral changes—what the researchers call “behavioral economics”—the ability and willingness to pay, work, and parent.  

As we wrap up 2013, I congratulate our state and tribal child support professionals on these accomplishments.

Stay tuned to my next Commissioner’s Voice in January 2014, when I’ll offer you 10 challenges as we face the third generation of our program!

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Reaching diverse customers through visual communications

Illustration of worker in child support officeInfographics are everywhere. A staple on websites across the internet, those colorful, poster-like illustrations grab our attention and help us visualize data. They can display facts and figures, research and surveys, ideas and trends, or simply a marathon route. Infographics may be old communications, but recently they’ve been paired with social media to engage target audiences.

Just in time for the recent Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15), OCSE designed our first infographic in Spanish. Following rave reviews of our storybook, Child Support Services and You, Let’s Work Together, our communications team crafted the infographic with parents in mind. How do I apply for Child Support services describes various ways to apply with a local agency. See the infographic, in both English and Spanish, on the Families page on our website.

Child support professionals and stakeholders in the program have reason to use compelling communications to reach Hispanic and Latino Americans. Our country now claims nearly 51 million Hispanics, of which 37 percent are foreign-born.

We can learn more about long-term trends in Hispanic population growth from the Census Bureau’s infographic America’s Foreign-Born in the Last 50 Years. Also based on the Census data is the Pew Research Center’s infographic Hispanics in the U.S.: Origin and Place of Birth. An article on the Texas Comptroller’s website, Texas by the Numbers, also offers infographics with Census data.

Innovative infographics can spread messages effectively to our diverse caseload and help us share data and other content with all of you. The more we know about our stakeholders and families, the better we can tailor these communications. I hope you will share our storybook and infographics in your jurisdiction. Please let us know your ideas for creating others.

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The Affordable Care Act will help parents and children in our caseload

Logo badge that links to healthcare.govWe have 40 million people in our child support caseload, including about 24 million adults. A third of the people in our caseload have incomes below the federal poverty level. According to a recent Urban Institute analysis of Census data (now on the OCSE website), our program served nearly 80 percent of poor custodial families in 2009. The Affordable Care Act will help make health care coverage more affordable and accessible for the people in our caseload. While obtaining medical support for children remains an ongoing responsibility, your child support office also can refer parents—both mothers and fathers—to the Health Insurance Marketplace.

States have new opportunities to expand Medicaid coverage to include adults without children living at home who have incomes at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level (about $15,000 for an individual). Community health centers have more funding than before. When I was a young mother, I didn’t have health insurance. We went to a public health center for my kids’ check-ups. My first son was born three months prematurely. We were still paying $10 per month toward that hospital bill when my second son had emergency surgery. I applied for Medicaid. I will always remember how I felt when my caseworker said, “We can take care of it. We can cover the bill. Don’t worry.”

Low-income noncustodial parents have an opportunity for the first time to get their own health needs covered. Think of that! Think of our ability to make a difference for the parents and children in our caseload. I will never forget a noncustodial parent employment program that I visited 20 years ago—the men couldn’t pay child support because they couldn’t get jobs. They couldn’t get jobs because they did not have front teeth.

Access to health coverage will help reduce racial, income, and gender disparities among the people in our caseload. Of the 6.8 million uninsured African-Americans in this country who are eligible for coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace, 56 percent are men. Of the 10.2 million uninsured Latinos in this country who are eligible for coverage through the Marketplace, 55 percent are men.

Now is the time to focus on outreach, information, and referrals for the parents and children in your caseload. Open enrollment begins October 1, with coverage beginning January 1 in this first year of implementation.

Later this fall, consumers can learn about and enroll in coverage through HealthCare.gov. HHS has launched a 24-hours-a-day consumer call center that is ready to answer questions in 150 languages. More than 1,200 community health centers across the country are preparing to help enroll uninsured Americans in coverage, and a partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services will help trusted local libraries be a resource for consumers who want information on their options.

In addition, HHS has begun training other individuals who will be providing in-person assistance, such as agents and brokers and certified application counselors. Health care navigators will serve as an in-person resource for Americans who want additional assistance in shopping for and enrolling in plans in the Health Insurance Marketplace beginning this fall. Navigators are trained to provide unbiased information in a culturally competent manner to consumers about health insurance, the new Health Insurance Marketplaces, qualified health plans, and public programs including Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. More than 100 national organizations and businesses have volunteered to help Americans learn about the health care coverage available in the Marketplace.

Plug in, and help the uninsured parents in our caseload get access to health care coverage. Our Health Care Connections fact sheets on the OCSE website can help point you in the right direction.

 

 

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What is our medical support road map?

Photo of smartphone showing road map, on top of a paper road mapOn Oct. 1, 2013, enrollment in the Health Insurance Marketplace will begin under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), while coverage will begin on Jan. 1, 2014. Child support agencies have an important role to play in connecting uninsured parents and their children to health care coverage by providing them with information about and referrals to the Health Insurance Marketplace.

But as important as these dates are for consumers, they are not child support program deadlines. Child support program requirements will not change on Oct. 1 and Jan. 1. Instead, we will continue to keep doing what we are doing—what our statute directs us to do, which is to provide for child health care coverage in child support orders. Employers still have the same medical child support responsibilities to respond to the National Medical Support Notice as they had before. Over time, the ACA will likely impact how we carry out our medical child support responsibilities, but not directly and not tomorrow.

At OCSE, we’ve done a number of things to pave the way for the future of medical support:

  1. Early on, even before the ACA was enacted, we issued grants to bring together state child support and state Medicaid teams to begin to identify the issues.
  2. Beginning in 2010, we issued guidance to give state child support agencies flexibility to manage consistently with each state’s health care direction and framework—programmatically—as well as data reporting and audits.
  3. We clarified that state child support agencies may look to both private and public coverage in ordering medical child support.
  4. We clarified allowable activities, including medical support facilitators and liaisons to cover children and to develop effective health care referral policies for both parents.
  5. We’ve worked with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to secure a medical support hardship exemption that exempts a parent from paying the shared responsibility payment if their child is not covered because the other parent was ordered to provide coverage but did not do so.
  6. We’re actively working with CMS to clarify child support assignment, cooperation, and Medicaid referral policies.
  7. We’re working within the federal government to clarify data sharing legal authorities between state child support and health care agencies, OCSE and state health care agencies, and between OCSE and federal health agencies. Our child support safeguarding rule permits state child support agencies to share certain data with state Medicaid and CHIP agencies.

I hope you’ll look at our new OCSE Child Support Health Care Connections fact sheets with staff in your child support agencies. We’ve prepared these fact sheets to help you find the information you need about the ACA. Please let us know your ideas for sharing the fact sheets.

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New campaign targets children of incarcerated parents

Girl with new Sesame Street character named MurrayOn June 12, just before Father’s Day, the White House hosted a Champions of Change event honoring 12 individuals who have dedicated themselves to supporting children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers. Some of these children and caregivers attended the festivities, and so did some Muppets!

Perhaps the most exciting part of the event was the announcement of a new partnership with Sesame Workshop (a nonprofit, educational organization) to reach young children of incarcerated parents. Sesame Workshop’s newest initiative, Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration, provides free, bilingual (English/Spanish), multimedia tools for families with young children (ages 3 to 8) who have an incarcerated parent. The tools include a guide for parents and caregivers, a children’s storybook, Sesame Street videos, a tip sheet, and the Sesame Street: Incarceration mobile app, all at SesameStreet.org/Incarceration.

Also at the event, the Administration released a fact sheet on its efforts to support children of incarcerated parents. It describes White House efforts to partner across the federal government to identify opportunities to support these children and their caregivers. The partnership produced a toolkit for child welfare and federal corrections professionals to ease coordination among child welfare agencies, federal prisons, and residential reentry centers, so incarcerated parents can stay engaged in their children’s lives or work toward reunification. 

The group also produced Children of Incarcerated Parents Myth Busters to support efforts to help children of incarcerated parents, and launched a Web Portal. The portal consolidates information on federal resources, grant opportunities, best and promising practices, and government initiatives that support children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers.  

I encourage child support professionals and stakeholders in the child support program to publicize all of these meaningful materials.

The Family Room Blog on the Administration for Children and Families website talks more about the event and the materials.

Why are we involved?

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, an estimated 1.7 million children under the age of 18 had a parent in prison as of 2007—an increase of almost 80 percent since 1991. The majority of federal and state prisoners are parents, and about half of incarcerated parents have support orders. Many child support agencies have prison and jail outreach programs to work with incarcerated parents.

OCSE is involved in several projects to assist the incarcerated population, including the Federal Interagency Reentry Council

Is your agency involved in a project to help engage incarcerated parents with the child support process and with their children? Please submit a comment on this blog.

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Health care options for families

Bubble ChartOne of the “bubbles” in the child support bubble chart is health care coverage. In identifying family-centered strategies over the last four years, I have highlighted family health care needs. Through our medical support activities, the child support program has long had the responsibility to obtain private health insurance for the children in our caseload. Now we can play a critical role in providing information to both parents about the range of available health care options—for their children and for themselves. 

Later this month, OCSE plans to launch two new fact sheet series to explain child support and health care connections under the Affordable Care Act and to address promising medical child support policies and practices under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act. Watch for them on our website, www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/css.

Starting Oct. 1, 2013, parents will be able to choose new affordable insurance options through a new Health Insurance Marketplace. There will be one application, called the “Health Insurance Marketplace Application for Health Coverage & Help Paying Costs,” that parents can use to apply for the new Health Insurance Marketplace, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and tax credits that will help pay for premiums. Parents may choose to use this application online, by phone, by mail, or on paper. In-person counselors and a toll-free phone line will be available to help them through every step of the process.

No matter what state they live in, families can get help as they apply for and choose new insurance options. Some states are setting up a state-based Marketplace; other states will work with the federal government in a State Partnership Marketplace; and the remaining states will have a federally facilitated Marketplace.

The Affordable Care Act authorizes states to expand Medicaid to adults under age 65 with income of up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. This is approximately $15,280 for a single adult in 2013. The Act provides unprecedented federal funding for these states—the federal government will pay for 100 percent of the cost of coverage for newly eligible individuals through 2016, and pay no less than 90 percent of the cost subsequently.  

No one plans to get sick or hurt, but most people need medical care at some point. Health insurance helps pay these costs. Help families find out how insurance works—and why it’s so important to have. Go to:  http://www.healthcare.gov/

 

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