Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Colorado: Please take a number. We'll call you back in a few days

Post / Craig F. Walker
Temporary worker N.S. Suleiman, left, and program leader Dean Taylor enter data for Arapahoe County into the new Colorado Benefits Management System. The county hired dozens of temps and approved hundreds of overtime hours to transfer the data for 37,000 existing cases.

The lattest news from Colorado:

Laboring behind benefits
By Manny Gonzales
Denver Post Staff Writer

Aurora - Problems managing the state's new computer benefits system have forced human services officials in some counties to turn away walk-in visitors.

Residents in Arapahoe County who drop by the local human services office are told to fill out a questionnaire and wait up to 48 hours for a telephone call.

Jefferson County has a similar policy, and Denver residents who currently receive benefits are asked to call customer service for non-emergency issues.

Officials say it's the only way caseworkers can enter the backlog of cases into the system, while simultaneously trying to manage new cases and complaints.

"It would take us 20 to 30 minutes to handle each (walk-in) inquiry, and we had about 400 walk-ins a day," Arapahoe Community Support Services Administrator Carol Saile said. "Walk-ins were just a big slowdown."

Arapahoe County imposed the limits at its human services headquarters in Aurora to give workers more time to transfer data into the state's new $200 million Colorado Benefits Management System (CBMS). In a recent report, Arapahoe was lagging behind most counties in such transfers.

"We're not going to be at the bottom of that list for long," said Saile, who assures that all inquiries get call-backs within 48 hours.

CBMS was implemented by the state Sept. 1 to streamline the processing of a variety of benefits, including food stamps and Medicaid, to a half-million of some of the state's most needy residents.

But the system was initially overwhelmed and county workers struggled to make it work, creating a backlog of cases and delaying checks. To transfer cases from the state's old system into CBMS, a task that is known as "cleansing," county workers had to enter each case manually while navigating a maze of database pages.

An Arapahoe worker was cleansing an average of eight cases a day before the new walk-in policy was put in place, Seymour said. Since implementing the policy in February, the rate has tripled.

But some residents say the lack of face-to-face interaction is too impersonal and not always reliable.

Three times, Monica Bell has received a notice that her 16-month-old son's Medicaid benefits had been eliminated. As an Aurora resident, Bell had to wait for a call from an Arapahoe case manager. Twice, she said, she never got the call, which meant more questionnaires and more waiting.

"They say they're trying to fix the system, but it just feels like I'm getting the runaround," said Bell, as she stood outside the human services office recently, hoping to speak to someone.

Denver and Jefferson counties also no longer accept walk-in inquiries unless there is an emergency.

"If it's not (an emergency), then we get their information and respond back within 24 to 48 hours," said Cheryl Ternes, director of Jefferson County's division of community assistance.

"We're doing a real good job in responding, and it makes everything much more manageable."

Sue Cobb, spokeswoman for Denver's human services, agreed. "This way, we can prioritize the folks most in need of assistance."

Arapahoe County hired dozens of temporary workers and approved hundreds of overtime hours to transfer about 37,000 existing benefits cases into CBMS.

And while the focus remains the backlog, that doesn't mean a needy resident won't get help, especially if it's urgent, said Katrina Seymour, Arapahoe human services spokeswoman.

As long as the walk-in policy gets the system working right, it's worth the extra wait, said Tracine Schneidt, 37, of Aurora.

"I got called back right away when I submitted a question about my benefits," said Schneidt, who relies on food stamps and Medicaid. "Plus, there are no more long lines of people waiting with questions."