Thursday, August 11, 2005

Carlos Guerra: What's the Rush?

Carlos Guerra: Why is Texas rushing to adopt a controversial call center plan?
Web Posted: 08/11/2005 12:00 AM CDT

San Antonio Express-News

When it passed in 2003, the intent of House Bill 2292 was obvious. The anti-tax ideologues in control of the Legislature were facing a $10 billion shortfall, they had vowed not to raise taxes and were committed to several costly measures, like creating a $290 million slush fund for big business.

So, they balanced the budget by slashing the few services Texas provided its young, poor and most vulnerable citizens.

HB 2292 rolled 11 state agencies that delivered health care and protective services into four new ones, rearranged organizational charts and shuffled programs around. In addition to this created confusion, it also cut services significantly.

But the real savings, proponents said, would come because the new Health and Human Services Commission would enroll people seeking Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Food Stamp, Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid and Child Health Insurance Program coverage through call centers instead of personal interviews, and create a new Web-based information system.

Never mind that the desperate and impoverished are often on the wrong side of the digital divide, or that many can't navigate complex phone systems. With straight faces, HHSC officials asserted that by creating four call centers and the still untested new computer system, and by giving most eligibility determination functions to a private-sector provider, $650 million would be saved over five years.

What wasn't said was that most savings wouldn't really come from closing 100 HHSC offices or firing 2,900 state employees, but by "rationing through inconvenience," or making applying for services so hard that many would just give up.

"They're making it more difficult for people to apply," says Will Rogers of the Texas State Employees Union, which recently forced the release of correspondence between HHSC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the Food Stamp Program.

The letters indicate that there are many other problems with this scheme, and that the feds aren't buying into its illogic.

"The USDA is very concerned that the call centers might not work," Rogers says. "But HHSC is trying to push ahead (and open) the call centers, though they might actually be an impediment to people getting services."

The missives also reveal federal concerns over privatization and HHSC's contract with Accenture, the Bermuda-based firm that HHSC awarded the $899 million call center contract without first getting required federal approval.

Why is there such a rush to close HHSC offices, fire state workers and open the call centers?

A Midland Reporter-Telegram story about that city's state representative, House Speaker Tom Craddick, offers a tantalizing clue.

"Craddick describes influence he exerted to get call center," the headline reads. The story then details that while driving to the Capitol one day, Craddick saw Accenture lobbyist Bill Pewitt walking and generously gave him a lift.

"By the time the two men arrived, Craddick had finished his pitch (for Midland), and Pewitt was ready to carry the plea to his employers," the story adds.

So, very soon, the largest of Accenture's four call centers will open in Midland, because, Craddick is quoted saying, "I'm still a state representative and I represent my district; I'm not statewide like a lot of people think."

He can say that again!