Friday, February 25, 2005

Welfare System in Colorado in Total Melt Down


"To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer."--Farmers' Almanac, 1978



A not-yet-ready-for-primetime Computer Program that was pushed through with the result of thousands of people needlessly suffering


Note: I still haven't finished my introductory posts in my "What's Wrong With Welfare" series... but will get back to that later.

Note Also that my comments are those of a private citizen, and do not represent the Texas Health and Human Services Commission in any way.

People in Texas, particularly its politicians should be paying attention to what has been going on in Colorado in the past 6 months, because I fear we are heading in the same direction. Colorado implemented a new computer program to handle it's welfare system, and did not first ensure it would work in the real world, or properly phase it in. Instead, following the pattern of Soviet and Maoist "Great Leap Forward" policies, they simply pushed it through and figured the kinks could be worked out.

What has happened is a complete melt down of the system, with people going for months without any benefits. Now some may say, "Good... maybe those lazy people will get jobs", but the reality is that while there is fraud and abuse, there are a great many people who depend on these benefits were really can't just go out and get a job. Some are disabled, some are too old, and some have other issues that prevent them from just going out and getting a job -- and many people do have jobs, but still count on these benefits to make ends meet.

Here's what the Denver Post is reporting:

"...the explosion in hunger across the state is the direct result of problems with the state's $200 million Colorado Benefits Management System, a nightmare computer-software program that has thrown food stamps, Medicaid, Old Age Pensions and other relief services into chaos since it was brought online Sept. 1.

Ed Kahn, attorney for the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, said the state's own statistics, as well as calls to the center from people seeking help, indicate the problems in processing aid applications have not eased.

"There were more applications overdue at the end of January than there were in December" when Denver District Court Judge John Coughlin gave the state until Feb. 28 to reduce the backlog by 40 percent, Kahn said.

Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Human Services, admitted as much. "We still have a considerable backlog," she said. She reminded people struggling to get help to call the emergency hotline number: 800-536-5298.

"We're on a major push to meet the 40 percent deadline," she said.

Face it, it would take a miracle.

Kahn said that though state workers processed 16,000 applications in January, they were no closer to catching up. The backlog was about 29,700, up from 29,600 in December.

And, to make matters worse, the system was dropping people from benefit rolls for no apparent reason, requiring them to reapply and wait - and wait - for assistance all over again.

"The food pantries and food banks and homeless services providers are really ill-equipped to take on a need of this magnitude," said Linda Murphy, director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. Usually they handle people in brief emergency situations, or the working poor who don't qualify for public assistance but periodically run out of money for food.

Since fall, they have been flooded with desperate families unable to get benefits. They need food for weeks at a time.

"There was a groundswell of people in need," Murphy said. Across the state, food pantries were being stripped bare soon after they opened each morning.

Hirota said the fund could not begin to solve the problem. "The gap is still considerable between what was needed and what we could provide."

And Kahn said the state is still failing to meet its responsibilities.

"This food-bank problem is going to go on indefinitely. We don't see much relief," he said. "We've called for an independent evaluation of the system. We want to find out: Is this system repairable? And if not, what are the alternatives?"

After six months of mismanagement endangering the lives of so many, it really doesn't seem like too much to ask.



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In Texas, we have two issues on the horizon, either one of which could result in a melt down... and if both are implemented quickly, you can be sure that we will see a disaster that will make what is happening in Colorado look small time.

1). We too have a new computer system in the works. The old system does need to be replaced, because it is an old DOS based system that was created in the late 80's and early 90's, and has been increasing hard to make work with contemporary computer systems that are available. However, the new system (TIERS) is developing into a boondoggle, because (in my opinion) they bit off more than they could chew and tried to get it to do too much, and they did not really listen to the end users when this project was in the early development stages.

2). The Texas Health and Human Services Commission is planning on implementing Call Centers to process most of the work done in conjunction with the Food Stamp, TANF, and Medicaid programs. The problem is they are pushing this through without having tested the premises that they have based their model on, and one of them is that the TIERS system is going to save time, and require fewer people (who will be paid less than the already low wages paid to the current staff). The reality is that this program is still flawed, and it takes longer to process a case action than the old system does. They also assume that they can cut about half of our agencies staff, and possibly privatize these call centers, and still get the same or better end results that the current system produces. There is no reason to believe that this will turn out to be the case.

I work in a call center that was implemented to handle the processing of changes to cases between recertifications (such as changes in income, address, and household). Eventually we made this work, but for about two years, our call center was more of a problem than a help. Much of our work had to be shifted back to the local offices, while we worked out the kinks. But one problem with consolidating our work into 2 or 3 call centers for the whole state, without having worked out the kinks first, is that there will be no one to call upon to bail out those call centers, should they find that they need the help temporarily or long term. And should they discover that the whole idea was wrong headed, it will take years to reverse what they propose to quickly undo with the mass closing of offices that currently handle this work.

In short... take heed Texas, because I have seen the future, and it doesn't work.



Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System
Another computer system that needs a lot more work and testing before it is fully implemented.


Updates:

TIERS of Frustration

More Meltdown Aftermath

The Great Leap Forward, and Other Examples of Bureaucratic Stupidity

Colorado's Computer System Price Tag Just Went Up

Denver Post Editorial: Computer fiasco adds expense

Accenture to get HHSC call center

Greely Tribune: State must pay to fix computer glitches, Aid agencies suffering

Colorado makes progress in cleaning up mess, but progress attributed to exta man hours rather than improved software

Welfare Glitches Continue and Worries About Texas Do Too.

If I had a Hammer: The Limits of Privatization

Denver Post Editorial: Progress in benefits system is illusory

Colorado Welfare System: Still A Sticky Situation

Colorado Employees and Officials Feel Burned by Computer System.

Foxes in the Chicken House