Human services employess voice computer concerns today
Wednesday, March 16, 2005
By Marija B. Vader
The Daily Sentinel
Frustrated county human services employees will voice their concerns to state elected officials and others today over the state’s $198 million welfare computer system that doesn’t work.
Today’s gathering will give counties the opportunity to discuss the impacts of the botched system to clients, providers and county employees, said Pat Ratliff, a lobbyist for Colorado Counties Inc., the professional organization for counties.
“It’s what we used to call a ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting,” Ratliff said.
Because the Colorado Benefits Management System does not function as it should, the state has overpaid clients to the tune of $18 million since September, when the system was put online, Ratliff said.
Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland estimated Mesa County is overpaying clients $185,000 monthly in food stamps alone because of the system.
“From a human perspective and from a financial perspective, we have to address the issue,” said Rowland. “It’s important not just to clients. It’s important to anyone who pays taxes.”
Like Colorado Counties Inc., Rowland is not seeking retribution.
Instead, she said, “I believe we will be able to work with the governor and the state to come to a solution to make it workable. To me it’s not about blame. It’s about fixing the situation.”
With its mainframe in Denver, the CBMS system links all county welfare offices with providers statewide, including physicians and pharmacies. The computer tracks and distributes payments for Medicaid, food stamps, temporary aid to needy families and other welfare programs.
Most of the overpayments are monies given to counties specifically for welfare programs by the state and federal governments. Once those governments realize the extent of the overpayments, they’re going to want the money back, Ratliff said.
The federal government will eventually want an accounting of money lost, Ratliff said.
“They’re going to want every dime recovered,” Ratliff said. Yet, counties “acted under a direct order from the state” to give the money away, even though state employees knew the computer was overpaying clients, she said.
“The state, to avoid further problems from the courts and the federal government, said basically give money to everybody,” Ratliff said.
Yet, as Rowland can attest, plenty of qualified people in Mesa County are not receiving their benefits.
In a memo delivered to Gov. Bill Owens, Department of Human Services Executive Director Marva Livingston Hammons, Department of Health Care Policy and Financing Executive Director Karen Reinertson and members of the joint budget committee and the House and Senate health and human services committees, Colorado Counties Inc. outlined several problems of the system:
Households are unable to obtain medical care, including medications.
Households that face eviction because of delays in receiving cash assistance are increasing requests to other agencies to avoid homelessness.
Food banks are struggling to meet the increased need.
County staff members experience high frustration levels.
There is increased client hostility and frustration.
Counties are now absorbing the extra costs for the time required to convert cases from the old system to the CBMS system.
Most counties anticipate a significant increase in staffing costs in order to provide the same level of service a year ago. These costs will “drain county budgets,” the memo said.
The federal government will expect to recoup overpayments.
Some Medicaid providers are not getting paid in a timely manner. That has put providers at financial risk, and some may close their doors to Medicaid patients as a result.
Colorado Counties, Inc. offered these recommendations:
It offered to help find a solution. Fixes should be completed and tested in a timely manner.
The Legislature should commission an independent system evaluation.
The state should deal with the issues now.
“Our clients cannot afford to wait months or years. They need immediate action,” the memo said.
Governor Asks for Review of Troubled Welfare Computer
Colorado officials are looking into whether the company that sold the state a $200 million welfare computer system should pay some of the costs stemming from widespread problems with the system.
The Colorado Benefits Management System is blamed for causing a backlog of nearly 30,000 cases last fall and early this year, leading to a lawsuit by advocates of the poor.
State agencies that work with the computer have requested an extra $8.3 million to cover everything from extra printing and postage, to extra employees to input data into the system.
Governor Owens says he has hired a consulting firm to assess the system, but he says it's too early to say whether the vendor -- Electronci Data Systems -- should bear some penalties and costs to fix the system.
Of the request for extra money, $3.5 million dollars is to cover extra employees to input data into the system as well as other workers, like trainers, needed to support the system. The agencies also want $481,142 to cover legal costs incurred because of a lawsuit filed against the state by advocates for the poor.
The Attorney General's office told lawmakers they are reviewing the state's contract with E.D.S.