Thursday, March 10, 2005

Denver Post Editorial: Progress in benefits system is illusory

Denver Post Editorial: Progress in benefits system is illusory

State officials have improvised to settle some public assistance cases, leaving the reliability of a new computer system a festering question.

Two state agencies overseeing the defective Colorado Benefits Management System submitted some pretty cheerful statistics to a judge this week, but there's really nothing cheerful at all about the ongoing damage to the state's public assistance programs.

The Colorado Center on Law and Policy sued the state after its introduction last year of a computer system designed to improve processing of the state's public assistance benefits. The new system didn't work, but the old one was already in mothballs. Eligibility and renewal applications quickly began to back up.

The state departments of Human Services and Health Care Policy have been under court order to reduce the number of cases out of compliance with federal or state processing requirements by 40 percent at the end of February and another 40 percent in the next 60 days. Earlier this week the state reported that, lo and behold, its 29,300-case backlog in early January had dropped 68 percent, to 9,500, by early February.

The new numbers would seem to suggest that the new, $200 million computer system is now perking along. But county officials and service providers aren't buying it. They have seen a doubling - or worse - of pending Medicaid applications, and they tell sad stories about families who are not receiving necessary services.

What the state doesn't say is that it achieved compliance only after it went off the books, or at least off the computer, to extend food stamps in January to at least 8,000 households and health benefits to another 8,000 children. The agencies simply bypassed the computer system and issued the benefits manually. It was a welcome approach to the immediate problem, and we applaud it. But we take issue with the state fudging the numbers to convince a judge that it is in compliance with his order. A U.S. Department of Agriculture official said in a Feb. 15 letter that she has serious concerns about the state's "efforts to achieve compliance" on pending food-stamp cases.

The system went online last Sept. 1, designed to process housing, food and public assistance benefits that go to about 500,000 Coloradans each year.

On Tuesday, the legislative Joint Budget Committee approved $8.2 million in emergency funding to help fix the problems and sought assurances that state officials have an "ultimate solution." Sen. Dave Owen, the panel's most veteran lawmaker, is so fed up with the problems he wondered aloud whether the legislature should have approved the system. "When is all this crap going to come to a stop?" Owen asked Tuesday.

Indeed, we can think of no more compelling chore than to get the system in shape to handle its responsibilities.