Monday, December 05, 2005

Counties the Heroes in Colorado Computer Mess

Denver Post Editorial: Counties the heroes in state CBMS mess

While Colorado's welfare benefits system obviously has a long way to go before it's fully fixed, progress is being made on reducing the backlog.

Fifteen months after the state's overpriced ($200 million) and under-performing Colorado Benefits Management System lurched into operation, most, though not yet all, needy Coloradans are finally getting their benefits in a timely fashion.

But the credit for making this technological pig fly largely goes to Colorado's 64 county human services offices, whose employees have worked themselves to exhaustion reducing case backlogs.

County officials gathered in Colorado Springs for their winter conference last week and heard a report from CBMS manager John Witwer before peppering him with questions and comments in a lively but productive session. Witwer noted that the backlog, which stood at 30,000 pending cases last December, had been trimmed to 3,711 by August. It climbed back to 5,800 in October, in part because Hurricane Katrina and other economic setbacks led to some increases in applications for benefits.

While the system obviously has a long way to go before meeting its promised goal of streamlining the state benefits process, Witwer's numbers do reflect measurable progress toward meeting a court order to reduce the backlog. Unfortunately, the reduction in case loads stems less from improvements in the system than from a brute force approach by counties that have added hundreds of new employees and paid large amounts of overtime to get the work done.

County human services directors did give high marks, publicly and privately, to Witwer, a former legislator who was appointed by Gov. Bill Owens in May to clean up the CBMS mess. Witwer's willingness to listen and work cooperatively with county officials have convinced local leaders that he understands their needs. Now, the hope is that the legislature's Joint Budget Committee will appropriate enough extra funds to relieve counties of the costs of the extra employees needed to make CBMS work. The JBC already gave an emergency appropriation of $5.75 million last June, with $3.9 million going directly to counties and $1.6 million for 17 new employees to get the bugs out at the state level. A comparable sum may be necessary to get through the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2006.

Improvements at the state level, though agonizingly slow in coming, are beginning to take hold. Now that Referendum C has put some new cash in state coffers, the legislature shouldn't balk at finishing the job of reforming our defective benefits system.