Thursday, May 05, 2005

Playing games with state benefits system

Denver Post Editorial

Playing games with state benefits system

The state has dragged its feet on repairing the new computer benefits system. More attention seemed to be paid to a broken lottery computer.

It certainly was bracing too see state officials scurrying to fix the broken lottery computer so Coloradans could play last night's multimillion-dollar Powerball jackpot. Yet they've dragged their feet when it comes to repairing the state's new benefits computer system - the one that has delayed food, health care and other assistance to Colorado's neediest citizens.

We applauded in March when Gov. Bill Owens hired experts to dig into the benefits mess and set a timely deadline.

But now The Post has learned that the review by Deloitte Consulting may not be completed until after the General Assembly adjourns next Wednesday. That's a major setback, or should we say, yet another major setback in this eight-month saga.

The Deloitte delay will make it more difficult for the legislature to play a role in getting the system in synch. Bob Hagedorn, D-Aurora, chairman of the Senate health committee, sounded a note of cynicism, saying, "Why am I not surprised by the news that the preliminary report will not be available until after the legislature adjourns?

"If this were a private business, heads would have rolled a long time ago."

The $200 million Colorado Benefits Management System, or CBMS, was launched last Sept. 1 to streamline the processing of food stamps, Medicaid and other state and federal benefits for a half-million residents. Almost immediately, the system bogged down.

In March, under pressure from the courts, federal officials and the legislature, the governor announced that Deloitte would conduct a six-week review and present recommendations. Owens' spokesman, Dan Hopkins, said at the time the goal was to have the work completed before the legislature adjourned May 11.

But Hopkins said this week that a more realistic date is May 18. "They're surveying all the counties. It's a huge undertaking," he said. The new timetable means that lawmakers will have adjourned and so be unable to quickly analyze the report and recommend any follow-up steps.

Attorneys for welfare recipients are dismayed at yet another delay in the attempts to fix the balky system.

"The benefits system still is not performing satisfactorily more than eight months after it was implemented, and a substantial number of people still are having their benefits wrongly cut or have limited or no access to benefits to which they are legally entitled," said Ed Kahn, lead lawyer for the Center on Law and Policy, which sued the state over the troubled computer system.

Owens should be apoplectic about a situation that reflects so poorly on the performance of two of his key cabinet departments. It took the intervention of advocates for the poor and a district court judge to light a fire under state officials and prompt them to take the problems seriously.

After the massive problems with the benefits system, we understand the need to have a comprehensive assessment whose goal is to give public assistance recipients the benefits they are entitled to in a timely manner.

The new delay seems yet another instance of underestimating the work that needed to be done and yet another instance of responding without urgency. Compare that to the state's instant response when the Lotto computer went blotto.