Thursday, April 28, 2005

Houston Press: Million-Hour Madness

Activist Celia Hagert says the system shouldn't begin until the computer program is sound.

Million-Hour Madness
Religious charities discover state welfare reform savings are based in part on their backs

Suzii Paynter and her small band of intrepid, faith-based foot soldiers recently found themselves trouping down to the basement of Christian Life Commission in Austin for an unusual experiment of sorts.

Most of her crew were longtime retirees who had helped the needy and helped the state in the past. They were First Baptist "regulars" who volunteered their time at the downtown homeless shelter. Paynter, public policy director of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, had several co-workers along.

They were committed to providing more assistance in what has been touted as a major overhaul of the welfare system in Texas.

State government, in a plan stretching back nearly ten years, had pledged to revamp an unwieldy bureaucracy to streamline the eligibility process for services and benefits to disadvantaged Texans. Agency functions would be consolidated, archaic computer systems would be upgraded, and key work would be outsourced to private contractors.

The predicted results are touted as nothing short of spectacular. Texas would save nearly $400 million in costs over the first five years, much of that coming from staff reductions in government jobs. And there are supposed to be tremendous gains in efficiency.

But as Paynter and leaders of other faith-based organizations would eventually discover, a primary component of this grand plan is to save money by using their volunteer services.

Then they found out just how much of the load they were projected to shoulder to make this new system as success: one million volunteer hours of work every year, much of it in tedious chores like entering data into state computers.

"We were a significant part of the plan, yet no one had held a forum or sent out a letter or recruited a round table or asked for an advisory committee," says Paynter. "There had been no outreach about this plan whatsoever to say we were written into this role, and certainly no money for it."

So they trekked down to the basement to try to test the plan.


A decade ago, George W. Bush made welfare reform part of his campaign for Texas governor. Few argued with the call for change.

The system had remained largely the same since it was first designed in the 1960s. Needy residents still have to run a gauntlet of government screening before being qualified to receive assistance.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission says a low-income working couple, with two children and an elderly parent, would have to fill out four separate applications at different state offices to try to receive aid. They would need to try to qualify at these various offices for children's health insurance, food subsidies, Medicare and community care assistance.

Many of the poor don't have access to cars, leaving them trying to use bus routes to get to various government offices involved in the eligibility process. Once there, they often face waits and are usually interviewed in person by caseworkers who fill out the lengthy applications and verify their claims.

The poor would often be sent back for more documentation -- social security cards, paycheck stubs, birth certificates and other records required to process their forms.

The state's solution to the problems was a plan to merge call centers and privatize key functions. Applicants could make one phone call to a call center, where a well-scripted employee of a private company would determine just what services the applicant was entitled to receive. No waiting in line, no filling out forms, no being told to go and get more documents and come back.

The plan required a new software system that would integrate the forms for all the major public benefits programs to provide "one-stop shopping" for applicants.

And, in no surprise to anyone who has followed Bush's "compassionate conservatism" doctrine, this new integrated eligibility model would rely heavily on religious-based and community-based groups.

State Representative Elliott Naishtat, an Austin Democrat, served on the bipartisan panel appointed by Bush in 1996 to study welfare reform. He says the committee supported a broad look into privatization in the welfare area, but it was considered only a study.

He says he was surprised to hear next that a state request for proposals had suddenly been issued to privatize the system -- a $2 billion project, with major corporations lining up for the action. "All of a sudden, we had EDS and IBM and Lockheed Martin, all wanting to be a part of this process," Naishtat says.

At the time, the Clinton administration put the kibosh on the plan, saying that the management of these programs could not be privatized.

The state Health and Human Services Commission regrouped and decided that it could at least overhaul the antiquated computer software system. It had been cobbled together over the years to serve 50 Department of Human Services programs across 20 agencies. The state legislature put $55 million into the program created in 1999, then another $137 million in 2001.

When legislators raised privatization ideas again, a far friendlier face was in the White House, and Bush disciple Rick Perry was in the governor's office. To qualify the program, Texas lawmakers called for a small corps of remaining agency caseworkers to do the eligibility determination.

Under that plan, the commission boasted that it would be able to cut 4,500 state workers and close 200 local offices across the state. That was calculated to be a $389 million savings in state and federal funds over the first five years.

In the last legislative session, the program advanced as part of the massive House Bill 2292, sponsored by Arlene Wohlgemuth, then a Republican state representative from Burleson in the Fort Worth area. She lost a run for Congress and is now a lobbyist.

Her legislation called for consolidating a dozen agencies and departments into five mega-agencies under the human services agency. The goal was greater efficiency for the state and the needy, with creation of the new consolidated call centers for assistance.

"At the time I came to the legislature in 1995, we had already been talking about 'one-stop shopping' for benefits, trying to make it as convenient as possible for the applicant and for the state," recalls Wohlgemuth. "These call centers are the epitome of that."


Nothing works until the software works, however. And the software still hasn't worked completely, even though it has been in a limited phase since July 2003. Celia Hagert of the Center for Public Policy Priorities says it's hard to imagine how call centers will work when the state still hasn't made sure the software -- the backbone of the program -- is working.

Known as TIERS, the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System is two years behind schedule and has had 50 version updates. Lawmakers were told last session that the system has serious problems in interfacing with other state agencies and in installing old records into the new system.

Jose Rocha, a recent state health department retiree and a member of the on-site assistance team for the project, told the House Committee on Human Services this month that the state should not risk rolling out the new computer system.

In his testimony, Rocha said the software failed to process dates correctly and could not distinguish between those who were eligible and those who weren't in a single household. It also had wrongly certified nonresident aliens for benefits and sent multiple sets of benefits to the same person because that person was registered three times in the system, he said.

Naishtat urges serious caution. "Many of us feel that we're moving too quickly on a system that will have a direct impact on thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of vulnerable people in low-income families," he says. "Questions, and very serious questions, still remain, so it makes perfect sense to me that we look very carefully at it."

If HHSC wasn't having enough problems getting its house in order for TIERS, IBM also has sued the state over the $1 billion call-center contract, saying that those who made the decision on the contract had past ties to winner Accenture.

Allegations regarding conflicts of interest and insider influence have riddled the project and its contracts -- several former staffers who worked for Perry and Texas agencies are accused of having a hand in the project as state workers, then going to private jobs with companies who gained lucrative contracts from the project. Wohlgemuth herself has been the target of some of the accusations.

The call-center contract is based on the software working and contingent upon in-house assessment as to whether in-house employees or outsourced workers can do the job the cheapest.

Criticism over the computer problems is now coupled with complaints about the assumption that nonprofit volunteers will fill a massive void in the labor required to make the program work.


Stephanie Goodman, spokesperson for the human services commission, argues that the million-hour volunteer component was an estimate of the time already spent by nonprofits in assisting the process of helping the needy obtain benefits.

That time can account for simply referring a client to a phone to make a call to the state's call centers, she says. If that's the case, they've got a lot of community groups fooled. They are mobilizing to figure out their role in the process.

Joe Rubio of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston Catholic Charities is already talking about additional training and liability needed for his own volunteers. Basically, the nonprofits have advised and assisted the needy who look to them for help, but they hardly embrace the idea of taking over the bureaucratic work of state agencies.

Rubio says this new role for religious groups -- replacing government, rather than assisting -- is slowly eroding the effectiveness of faith-based organizations.

Some leaders of nonprofits say it's one thing for government to embrace the faith-based community. It's another thing to balance the budget on the backs of volunteer groups and the poor in the process.

"It's missing a certain spirit, a caring spirit, that we're going to make it better to serve people better," says Rubio. "I just see us trying to cut back on government by exposing the vulnerable to more risk than they're taking already."

According to the business plan, faith-based and community-based organizations would handle the initial application process for up to one-fourth of the needy seeking welfare.

The business plan expects all enrollment and screening -- that is, the work not done by faith-based and community-based groups -- to be done over the phone or online. Paynter can already feel the tug of desperate non-English-speaking hands on her sleeve, given that the average call-center call is estimated to last only seven minutes.

Paynter says, "When you talk about the initial stage of the application, any kind of face-to-face meeting is going to happen with these community organizations."

While some confusion continues over the specifics, many charities see themselves having to station volunteers at computer terminals, tediously punching in the data that the state will check in the eligibility process.

"Many of our agencies make food-stamp applications available to clients, when they come in for a food box, or help clients with their paperwork," Rubio told a Senate forum on the subject. "However, this is a far cry from committing on paper to having a staff person available at all times to assist clients with the food-stamp application process."

When Paynter's group finally learned of the million-hour plan, she gathered up volunteers and headed to the basement to try to simulate the work they would be expected to handle.

The test run was on what she refers to as a "script," a flowchart of triangles and arrows indicating who was supposed to do what and when in the application process.

The group downloaded a 14-page application for Temporary Aid to Needy Families and tried to follow the arrows in a mock run. The resulting efforts were awkward at best.

"It was a lot for us to handle," Paynter admits.

Skeptics are now backing a bill by Representative Dawnna Dukes to halt the start-up of the computer program -- and consequently, the volunteer plan. The Austin Democrat wants it to be fully reviewed under the stress of a full state caseload.

"I think this legislation is an extra layer of protection," Celia Hagert says. She notes that the budget assumes that 60 percent of the state's eligibility workers can be cut within the next two years, replaced by the upgraded computer system, volunteers and private contractors.

Goodman says that Dukes has a valid point.

"We had a fall rollout of the call centers planned," Goodman says, "but if it doesn't work, we can't go forward with the call centers." | originally published: April 28, 2005