Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Welfare Glitches Continue and Worries About Texas Do Too.

Note: that my comments are those of a private citizen, and do not represent the Texas Health and Human Services Commission in any way

Welfare glitches still a headache after half a year

By By MARIJA B. VADER The Daily Sentinel

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Online since September, the state’s $198 million welfare computer system continues to malfunction, causing Mesa County’s Department of Human Services to work long hours, often doing work by hand that should be done by a computer, said Sue Tuffin, acting director.

The Colorado Benefits Management System, or CBMS, causes headaches and often delayed services for not only county employees, but providers of the services as well as welfare recipients.

The system is causing some people eligible for food stamps to not receive them, while others are receiving triple their payments, Tuffin said.

In one case, a child that needed medication for a heart condition had to wait because the CBMS computer denied the claim, even though the child was indeed eligible for the drug, Tuffin said.
In another case, a Mesa County resident is supposed to receive $25 monthly in Old Age Pension, but the CBMS computer keeps spitting out checks for $540.

“We have to say — you have to spend it,” said Diann Rice, a division director for the Mesa County Department of Human Services. And she can’t give the money back, according to a judge’s order.

“She’s afraid — when is the other foot going to fall?” Rice said.

Tuffin and Rice updated the Mesa County commissioners Monday on the computer system.

Mesa County residents received $1.037 million in food stamps in January, up from $856,000 in January of last year. The difference, Tuffin said, is largely due to overpayments as a result of the CBMS system.

The vast majority of overpayments are made in programs paid for by federal and state dollars, not Mesa County tax dollars, Tuffin said. Employees of the county human services department often do not know how much a client is overpaid because benefit checks are mailed directly to the client from Denver.

The state director of human services has assured county directors they won’t be liable for overages, “but nothing’s in writing,” Tuffin said. And sanctions from the federal government, once it catches on to the overages, could cost a lot of money, she said.

“You would think the feds would be putting pressure on the state to fix it,” said Commissioner Craig Meis. “Once they find it, they’re going to crucify someone.”

To spend “$198 million to create a software program that doesn’t work ... every time we talk about this, my blood pressure goes up. This is a nightmare,” said an exasperated Meis.

Tuffin and Rice agree, the system could be fixed, but not without considerable effort.

The system has been blamed for causing a backlog of 29,361 total cases in several Colorado counties. Advocates for the poor sued and a judge gave the state until Monday to reduce the backlog by 40 percent.

According to the report given to Judge John Coughlin, state agencies resolved 19,840 of the original 29,361 cases that were reported as backlogged, leaving 9,521 cases still pending.

In Mesa County, employees have been manually inputting information on 15,907 cases since September. There are 2,727 cases left to go, said Rice.

“I’m very proud of the staff. We hope to be almost complete by the end of March,” Rice said.

At a recent meeting of Colorado Counties Inc., the advocacy organization for counties, members requested the organization send a letter of no confidence to Gov. Owens for Marva Livingston Hammons, the executive director for the state department of human services and Karen Reinertson, executive director of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.

The CCI chair decided to not take that action because, “They wanted to take a less confrontational approach,” Rice said.

“How long do we have to take a less confrontational approach?” asked an incredulous Commissioner Tillie Bishop. “To remain silent is to accept what’s happened.”

“We agree. We’re at a point where real action needs to be taken,” Tuffin said.

What’s more is that the state department of human services recently requested $8.9 million in supplemental funds from the state Legislature, to cover software fixes, staff, legal fees and overpayments, all because of the CBMS computer system, Rice said.

“It’s amazing to me this is not front-page news every day,” Meis said. “This is our state’s Enron.”

Comments: When these articles speak of the Federal Government charging the state because of overpayments, this is because there are national standards of accuracy, and if you pass a certain threshold of errors (as determined by federally mandated audits of cases), you have to pay back the Federal Government a certain amount (based on some formula) that can add up to many millions of dollars.

In Texas, we were in trouble in the early 90's with our error rate. We cleaned it up, and for about 5 or 6 years in a row, we actually got about 30 million dollars in enhanced funding because we were doing so well. No other large state had ever done so well. But the thanks we have received is continuous budget cuts, hiring freezes, and now they are preparing to fire staff based on assumptions that do not add up, and projected time savings that are not there.

Texas could experience a melt down like Colorado even if we do not implement our own flawed computer system (which has an eerie resemblance to the one in Colorado). Staff shortages have reached a crisis stage, and staff are already begining to fall behind. Our error rate has also shot through the roof, and the response from State Office is that they want to know what the problem is. The problem is not that we do not know how to properly work cases, and issue accurate benefits, the problem is that we have been asked to do increasingly more with increasingly less for too many years. On top of all this, they are planing on closing most offices, and doing most or our work from 2 or 3 call centers... which is an idea they have not tested, and do not know how it will work, but upon which their whole staff cutting scheme is dependent. If these call centers do not result in a hugely more efficient process (which all my experience tells me will not be the case), we will not be able to get the work done that the state is counting on.

So to summarize:

1) Our staffing levels are already dangerously low, and this becomes more true with each passing day.

2) The plan is to implement a computer program (TIERS) which has problems very much like the CBMS system, and to roll it out to the entire state at one time, rather than to roll it out region by region, as originally planned (they have thus far not even rolled out TIERS to all of the Austin region, even though they were supposed to have done so several years ago, but have been unable to because of ongoing problems with the software).

3). The plan is also to consolidate most of our work into 2 or 3 call centers, begining in September of this year.

4). And they appear to be leaning towards privatizing these call centers, which has a whole new set of problems associated with it.

Is anyone in Austin watching what is happening in Colorado?