Thursday, March 03, 2005

Colorado's Computer System Price Tag Just Went Up

Ann Schrader of the Denver Post reports:

"The cost of implementing the state's new public benefits computer system continues to climb, as two state agencies are seeking nearly $8.4 million in emergency funds.

On Tuesday, the legislative Joint Budget Committee will hear the request that primarily covers costs associated with a December court order to fix the troubled $200 million Colorado Benefits Management System.

Officials of the departments of Human Services and Health Care Policy and Financing say they need the money to pay for a centralized data entry system, mailings to clients, legal costs, an emergency call center, more staff and computer upgrades.

"We're making a good case, and we hope the JBC agrees," said Human Services spokeswoman Liz McDonough.

The computer system debuted Sept. 1 to streamline applications and payments to thousands of Coloradans who receive assistance such as food stamps and Medicaid.

Glitches caused case backlogs to grow, prompting a lawsuit from the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. On Dec. 21, Denver District Judge John W. Coughlin ordered the state to fix the system, and set goals and deadlines to protect "Colorado residents facing immediate harm."

Edwin Kahn, one of the attorneys who brought the suit, questioned why the state had waited until February to ask for money to make fixes the court ordered in December.

"This looks to me like too little too late," Kahn said.

Moreover, he said, the additional funding may not be enough to fix the system.

"We still don't know how much it's going to cost in full and how long it's going to take," Kahn said.

Of the $8,379,000 supplemental budget request, about $2.4 million would come from the state's general fund. The remainder would draw from federal and state sources.

The request covers actual and predicted costs from Sept. 1, 2004, through June 30, 2005. Included are $2.7 million for two centralized data-entry sites to expedite cases; $1.6 million for increased client notices generated by the system; $2 million for system upgrades; $939,000 for additional staff; $511,000 for an emergency call center to assist people who Coughlin said are in "precarious positions"; and $481,000 for legal expenses.

Particularly plaguing the counties are notices sent to clients directly from the state.

"We continue to hear from a lot of clients that they get duplicative, conflicting notices," said Jennifer Watson, spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Department of Human Services.

State officials will report to Coughlin on Monday whether they have pared the backlog of cases - estimated at up to 40,000 - by the required 40 percent."