Monday, April 11, 2005

Colorado: Benefits system in a pitiful state of affairs

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

The Denver post has the following editoral on the ongoing welfare fiasco in Colorado. If any Texas officials or politicians are reading this editorial, I would encourage them to think about themselves being on the hot-seat when things in Texas meltdown, and to also keep in mind that they can still avoid the meltdown here, if they do something about it soon.

Benefits system in a pitiful state of affairs:

"Even while the focus must be on efforts to get the new applications system in working shape, it is essential to understand what went wrong and why.

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of periodic editorials on the state's welfare computer problems.

Experts advised against it, but the $200 million Colorado Benefits Management System went online Sept. 1 to streamline administration of a number of state and federal benefits programs. Seven months later, the system is still a mess, still the subject of delays, of mistakes and of litigation.

It is a pathetic state of affairs, with Colorado's most vulnerable citizens being jerked around in the process of applying for benefits for which they are eligible.

Several parties likely share the blame for the system's warts, though sadly no one wants to take responsibility. As the problems with the system drag on, the question of responsibility has inevitably come front and center. State lawmakers want to know who or what is to blame for the mess that has delayed assistance for many sick, hungry and elderly people in Colorado who qualify for food stamps, Medicaid and income supplements. The attorney general is investigating. As Republican state Sen. Ron May, an information technology expert, quipped recently: "The fingerpointing has begun." Perhaps it should have started sooner.

Is any one party responsible for the more serious flaws?

State officials ordered the system, but why did they put it online after county experts warned it was not ready? Did an independent validation contractor who was supposed to monitor the system's launch leave too early due to the state's mounting budget problems? Did the responsible state agencies - Human Services, and Health Care Policy and Financing - fail to properly manage the startup or ensure that county workers were adequately trained?

Attorneys who represent social services applicants say they haven't seen any urgency from the governor or the state agencies responsible for these programs.

Some state officials believe the problems started with Electronic Data Systems, the Texas company contracted to develop the software system, and escalated from there. Did EDS misrepresent the system's readiness, miscalculate the technical needs or fail to deliver the capabilities it promised?

The attorney general's office confirmed last week it is looking into whether EDS met its contractual obligations. An EDS official says it has met, and exceeded, its obligations - that a decision to add faster processors within days after the system went online was in the works well before Gov. Bill Owens issued a public demand for them some three weeks later. Moreover, there was a backlog in processing welfare applications even before the new system went online, the official said.

Owens' spokesman Dan Hopkins said it's possible the slow processors exacerbated the backlog that led to the bottleneck existing today. EDS says the company was contracted to provide enough power to have 2,700 people use the system - only a third at any given time, which is the "industry standard." Instead, said the official, 4,100 people became users, many untrained, exceeding the system's capacity. Contract language supplied by Human Services spokeswoman Liz McDonough says that the system would support 2,700, and states, "The licensing agreement does not limit the number of users who may use the system simultaneously."

EDS spokesman Bill Ritz said his company supports the independent review now underway and is committed to "identifying and resolving remaining issues."

Despite a possible lawsuit against EDS, the legislature's Joint Budget Committee has recommended renewing the existing contract with EDS. "We were not going to renew the vendor, but then we decided that won't solve the problem and could slow things down," JBC Chair Abel Tapia said.

McDonough said the state has not yet officially accepted the EDS system. "We're still in a position to ask things of EDS because the project is not accepted," she said. While the fingerpointing goes on, the players should keep in mind that problems with the system have not gone away. Needy people are continuing to suffer."

One of the more telling comments above is the one about how they wanted to dump EDS as a vendor, but then realized this would cause more problems than it would solve. This shows the danger of the privatization of such essential elements of a welfare system. It's sort of like checking into the roach motel, you can check in, but you can't check out. Once these vendors get their hooks into the system, they become indispensible, and can then start jacking up the price, and/or simply fail to live up to all their contract obligations, and what can the state do? ...nothing, but like it.