Tuesday, March 08, 2005

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

The Employees in Colorado are working 14 hour days. The Computer System is still hardly working.

There are two reports this morning on the state of the clean up of the backlogged welfare system in Colorado:

The first one is by Bill Scanlon of the Rocky Mountain News:

State reports drop in benefits backlog
Critics say numbers reflect staff work, not system progress

"Backlogged welfare applications have dropped by two-thirds since the first of the year, from almost 30,000 to fewer than 10,000, the state reported Monday. But officials at clinics that serve Colorado's poor say their frustrations remain.

"Our headaches sure haven't fallen by two-thirds," said Elena Thomas Faulkner, policy and development director for Colorado Community Health Network. "Our pending (applications) are getting worse."

Conflicts over the benefits system came to light last year after a public-interest law firm filed suit, saying the state's new $200 million Colorado Benefits Management System was rushed online before its bugs were fixed. The Colorado Center on Law and Policy argued that the errors kept food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits from hundreds of people in need.

Denver District Judge John Coughlin ordered the state to set up an emergency hotline by the end of December and to lower the backlog by 40 percent by the end of February. Federal law sets deadlines of seven, 30 or 45 days for states to process benefit applications. The numbers reported Monday show that the backlog in applications for food stamps fell about 80 percent; Colorado Works, a work program, by 74 percent; and health coverage for families and children by about 60 percent. Only financial and medical health for adults lagged behind with a 28 percent drop.

"I want to extend my sincerest appreciation and thanks to all the county and state staff who have worked nights and weekends to reduce the backlog," said Marva Livingston Hammons, Colorado Department of Human Services executive director. "Their efforts and dedication to this have been extraordinary."

But Ed Kahn, one of the lawyers who sued the state, said he cannot determine whether the drop in the backlog is due to the system working better or to staffers working around it to resolve individual cases.

The state's newly released numbers show that 7,500 of the overdue food-stamp applications shouldn't have been pending at all:

• 1,500 should have been closed but were not because of a software error.

• 1,200 were pending while the household already was receiving food stamps. The second application was a mistake, either by staff or the computer.

• 2,600 changed from pending to closed because the clients didn't provide information, didn't show up for an interview or were not qualified.

• 2,200 should have been closed because the families had applied for both regular food stamps and emergency food stamps - and had already received one or the other.

"I'm skeptical these numbers represent an improvement in legitimate processing," Kahn said. "It does seem surprising that, using newly hired temporary staff, they've been able to discover all these problems with applications pending since December."

The two departments that use CBMS hired temporary help and paid overtime for 14-hour workdays. They recently sought additional funds. Human Services spokeswoman Liz McDonough said much of her department's $8.4 million supplemental request was to resolve the CBMS problems.

Gov. Bill Owens said the new numbers "show steady progress. But more needs to be done."

The numbers also show that almost 5,000 households that may or may not still be eligible are continuing to receive food stamps. It remains unclear whether the state or the counties will reimburse the federal government for benefits that shouldn't have been paid.

The Denver Post's article by Ann Schrader adds a few more details:

"Meanwhile, a regional U.S. Department of Agriculture administrator told the state that she has "serious concerns" about food stamps being issued without proper paperwork. Some benefits may have been pushed through to get food to hungry people stymied by the computer glitches. In January, the state issued $80 in food stamps to each member of about 8,000 new households that had not been certified, said Darlene Barnes, regional administrator of the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service....

The $200 million computer system that debuted Sept. 1 is "cumbersome, it's unpredictable; the communication is terrible," said Linda Fairbairn, social services director in Baca and Prowers counties. She said federal officials probably will fine the state over the food stamps, and the state "will attempt to pass it to the counties, and that's when outright war will break out." The counties urged state officials to run more test programs before launching the system."