Saturday, May 28, 2005

Welfare computer flawed throughout

May 28, 2005
Welfare computer flawed throughout

By KYLE HENLEY THE GAZETTE


DENVER - Colorado’s new welfare computer system is riddled with problems, from the software to the team set up to manage it, according to a private audit of the $200 million system released Friday.

The $365,000, six-week study by Deloitte Consulting LLP delivered a stinging analysis of the Colorado Benefits Management System, or CBMS. It charged that software bugs cause confusing information to be sent to welfare recipients and incorrect benefits to be issued.

The CBMS issues went live eight months ago after nearly a decade of development. It manages more than $2 billion a year in welfare benefits — including cash assistance, Medicaid reimbursements, food stamps, housing vouchers — to about 380,000 of Colorado’s neediest residents.

But it immediately caused a backlog of cases throughout the state that rose to 30,000. The backlog has been reduced to about 9,000 cases, officials said Friday.

The Deloitte report found the state did not have the technical expertise or management structure in place to quickly fix the system’s problems. It also determined that county welfare workers who use the system had received inadequate training and aren’t offered sufficient technical help.

“The system is not where we want it to be,” said Tim Davis, a member of the Deloitte team.

The report offered 94 recommendations for reforming CBMS, everything from technical software changes to a complete overhaul of the way the system is managed.

“Our goal was not to address why the problems existed,” Davis said. “Our goal was to determine what we can do in the near term and the longer term to move this system forward.”

Officials from the El Paso County Department of Human Services — the department that oversees local welfare programs — would not comment on the report, because they had not seen it.

“Anything that the state and governor can do to the workings of the CBMS system, we will support and work with them to reach success,” said DHS Director Barbara Drake.

El Paso County — with about 68,000 welfare cases — has struggled with the transition from the old benefits system to CBMS. Many clients have received false or confusing mail notices about their benefits. One client even received 42 notices in one envelope.

Many records did not transfer from the old system to the new one, forcing county workers to manually review each case. Additionally, about 2,000 families lost food stamp benefits because of system confusion on eligibility.

Many of Colorado’s other 63 counties are experiencing similar problems, the Deloitte report found.

Gov. Bill Owens moved quickly to respond to some of the recommendations in the report by appointing one person to manage the entire system and creating a nine-member committee to comb through the recommendations.

He named Rep. John Witwer, R-Evergreen, to oversee CBMS. Witwer, a retired radiologist who has served on the legislative budget committee, will earn $110,000 a year. He’ll step down from the General Assembly immediately and begin the new job Wednesday.

“The Deloitte report calls for establishing a single voice that is ultimately responsible for decision making and direction for CBMS,” Owens said. “Dr. Witwer will be an effective and forceful manager who will assure that the CBMS system will reach its full potential.”

Witwer said he hopes to quickly take stock of technical problems within CBMS so the state can move swiftly to solve them.

“I see my job as primarily a communicator and coordinator,” Witwer said. “If there is a problem, we have to find out where it is and how to solve it, whether it is technical or on the human side.”

Witwer is already working with the governor’s budget experts to determine what it will cost to put some of the report’s other recommendations into play, such as creating a better training system and putting together a full-time troubleshooting team and help desk staff.

“It’s a matter of priorities,” he said. “This is good money that is being spent on a huge part of the state budget.”

Some of the recommendations, he said, could take months or years to implement.

“It doesn’t answer the question my constituents keep asking, like when do we get relief,” said Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs. “I’m disappointed and frustrated because we need to fix things right now. People can’t wait for a year or more for us to solve their problems.”

CONTACT THE WRITER:

1-303-837-0613 or

khenley@gazette.com

TIMELINE

The state of Colorado spent $200 million developing the Colorado Benefits Management System over nearly a decade. Here is a look at some of the problems it’s faced:

Sept. 1, 2004 — The last wave of welfare checks and food stamps were sent out in Colorado using older computer systems. Numerous counties, including El Paso County, ask the state to delay the new program, saying the system is not ready. Gov. Bill Owens disregards the requests and orders it to be implemented.

Oct. 1, 2004 — The new benefits system is used for the first time. Thousands of needy Coloradans don’t get their welfare checks or food stamps.

October 2004 — A group sues to force the state to go back to the old system.

November 2004 — The new system keeps county welfare officials from processing new applications. The statewide backlog stands at 29,000.

December 2004 — Backlog of applications drops to between 8,000 and 10,000, where it stands today. Also, a Denver District Court judge lets the new system stay in place, but orders the state to set up an emergency call center and hire extra staff to make sure problems are handled. Problems continue.

March 2005 — Owens asks Deloitte Consulting LLP to do a private audit of the new system to determine how to fix the system. The cost is $365,000.

May 27, 2005 — Deloitte delivers its audit, citing software bugs and poor management as the primary problems.

AUDIT RECOMMENDATION HIGHLIGHTS

-Appoint a project manager.

The governor acted quickly by picking Rep. John Witwer, R-Evergreen. He will coordinate between state officials who control welfare funds and county agencies that deliver aid directly to Colorado’s neediest families.

-Fix software bugs. Some caused confusing and contradictory information to be sent to welfare clients, and others caused inaccurate benefits to be issued.

-Dedicate full-time state employees, including a team of computer experts, to rapidly fix software problems and a full-time help desk to assist county welfare employees who have problems with the software.

-Create an up-to-date list of commonly asked questions that counties can use.

-Create a system that can test changes before they go live in the system.

Do a better job training the 2,800 county employees who use the system.