Saturday, March 05, 2005

Denver Post Editorial: Computer fiasco adds expense

The Denver Post today has in its editorial section more on the welfare melt down in Colorado:

"The introduction of Colorado's $200 million welfare computer system has been a disastrous blunder whose impact is being felt across the state by Coloradans who can least afford it. And now the price tag is going up.

Days before the state is to report to a judge on the status of a backlog of public assistance cases, officials from two state agencies said they plan to ask the legislature for more than $8.4 million in emergency funds to fix the troubled Colorado Benefits Management System.

We're hardly in a position to tell lawmakers not to approve the supplemental funds - this system simply must be fixed. But it sure makes one wonder what happened to all those assurances made by state officials last year - under oath - after they were sued by the Colorado Center for Law and Policy, a public-interest law firm. The state said in effect that the system wasn't dysfunctional at all and that the backlogs would be cleared up swiftly.

Rather than declining, the backlog is believed to have grown. Since the benefits system went online last Sept. 1, food stamp applications have been delayed and renewals have been bogged down. The system was supposed to streamline and expedite the processing of social service benefits. But state officials ignored warnings that the system was not ready for solo flight. By the time it became clear to them that there was indeed a problem, there was no turning back - the old system was out of business. The new system has slowed benefits not only to food stamp recipients but also to people who are eligible for health care, housing and other government assistance.

Last November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees food stamps, warned state officials that Colorado's efforts to correct problems spawned by the new system had fallen short and demanded a plan to improve processing times and eliminate backlogs.

In addition, the state is under court order to reduce a backlog of welfare benefits applications that may number up to 40,000. The departments of Human Services and Health Care Policy and Financing were ordered to reduce the number by 40 percent by this coming Monday.

Officials from the two departments have finally acknowledged there is a problem, perhaps pressured by Monday's court date. They say the extra $8.4 million would pay for a centralized data entry system, mailings to clients, legal costs, an emergency call center, more staff and computer upgrades.

The bottom line is the system the state originally claimed was not broken is broken. Gov. Bill Owens needs to see that state officials get the problem fixed. It shouldn't take an angry federal agency or a frustrated state judge to get this done."