Monday, August 29, 2005

Colorado Welfare Meltdown, after one year

After a year, welfare computer system better, but problems persist


Workers for El Paso County’s welfare programs this week will mark the one-year anniversary of the beginning of their struggle with a computer system that’s supposed to manage welfare benefits.

The computer program is called the Colorado Benefits Management System, or CBMS.

Organizers of a small anniversary gathering for workers, though, are considering how to express its effect on welfare workers and recipients. One suggestion: “Can’t Break My Spirit.”

At a cost of $200 million and after nearly a decade in development, the computer system left thousands without basic services such as medical care and food stamps when it went into service Sept. 1, 2004.

As CBMS enters its second year of service Thursday, activists and welfare workers say it has improved dramatically, although some problems remain. An advocacy group called the Colorado Center on Law and Policy is pressing a lawsuit against the state government aimed at forcing fixes and special consideration for welfare cases the computer can’t handle automatically.

“There are still a lot of people, particularly on the Medicaid side, who are not getting the services to which they are entitled, which means they’re going without medical care,” said Elisabeth Arenales, an attorney for the center.

The state says it has made quick progress. In a court-ordered status report filed last month, state welfare officials said they had paid 456,463 Medicaid and child health insurance accounts in June, and that 2,721 applications hadn’t been processed within the time the law requires.

The overdue applications represent a little more than half of 1 percent of the caseload. Other programs such as food stamps and cash payments to poor families have also seen improvements, the state said.

Caught in this back-andforth are people like Linda Blaize, whose 31-year-old son, Josh Blaize, receives welfare benefits including a home-care allowance, Medicaid and food stamps.

Josh Blaize receives welfare benefits because he has asperger’s syndrome, a condition related to autism. His mother said the disruption to his benefits started in October, the month after the computer system went into service. One benefit program or another would suddenly halt without explanation, she said.

“We’d get that one straightened out, (and) the next month no medication, the next month it would be no food stamps,” she said.

Linda Blaize lives in Colorado Springs and works as a software engineer. At one point she said she offered to go to the welfare office and help straighten things out with the computer system. “They can’t allow that, apparently,” she said.

“I have wondered what happened to the people who don’t have an advocate or don’t have someone to help them out,” she said. “Like, Josh could no way go down to the Department of Human Services and ask for a packet to fill out.”

Blaize said the benefits have arrived reliably for a couple of months.

Stories like Blaize’s are common across the state, but welfare officials say problems are becoming more the exception than the rule. Colorado lawmakers have allocated millions of dollars to pay for improvements, and a committee of system users has helped correct many system errors.

“By and large, now it is working as a system as it was designed,” said Levetta Love, who is in charge of the system changeover for El Paso County.

Officials from Colorado’s 63 other county welfare offices offer similar reports, said John Witwer, the director of CBMS, who was appointed by Gov. Bill Owens on July 1. Witwer said many of the system’s serious flaws are fixed, and nearly all the problems have at least been identified. More programming repairs will roll out during the next few months, he said.

Among the remaining problems is that the computer system automatically sends out multiple notices about benefit changes. The notices sometimes wrongly report that benefits have been terminated, or they conflict with other notices sent the same day.

Blaize said she has received six notices about benefit changes inside a single envelope, and the next day another notice arrived saying benefits would cease.

Such errors should be corrected some time next year, Love said. In the meantime, El Paso County’s Department of Human Services has trained a few dozen temporary employees to help with the system. The department is expecting about $300,000 from the state to pay the salaries of temporary workers through the first part of next year, said Director Barbara Drake.

The Colorado Center on Law and Policy acknowledges that the computer system has improved, Arenales said. But it’s hard to tell by how much, because the state is limiting access to how the system is working, she said.

Court battles led by the center during the past year led to a judge’s order requiring the state to set up an emergency hotline for the toughest cases. Whether that hotline is working as it should is the latest point of dispute as the lawsuit continues.

“I think it’s been a more constant reminder to the state that there are real people who are suffering real harm, and my hope is, I guess, that it has resulted in some improvements to the delivery of services that might not otherwise have occurred,” Arenales said.

But even as more parts of the system are repaired, changes to the law, such as tax-subsidized drug benefits, will make other parts of the programming obsolete, Witwer said. Colorado’s welfare system has about a half-million recipients who are on dozens of programs, each of which must interact with other databases, such as Social Security and medical records. No computer system would be able to manage all that flawlessly, Witwer said.

“There always will be complexity put on top of complexity,” he said.