Friday, March 16, 2007

Senators Urge Accenture Call Center Contract Probe

You can read a shorter version of this story, with commentary from HHSC Employee, by clicking here.

Tyler Morning Telegraph: Senators Urge Call Center Contract Probe

From Staff, Wire Reports

Nearly every state senator has signed a letter asking the inspector general of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to investigate the failed contract with the company hired to privatize the state's social services eligibility system.

"There are significant questions concerning the contract, and the members of the Texas Senate want them answered," said Sen. Bob Deuell, who circulated the letter.

Deuell, a Republican from Greenville, said he also plans to ask the state auditor to look into the contract.

Sen. Kevin Eltife signed the letter.

"We should demand a full accounting of the Accenture contract," Eltife said. "This venture that was to save the taxpayers millions now looks to have costs taxpayers millions."

The commission announced Tuesday it was ending its contract with the Texas Access Alliance, a group of companies led by Accenture LLP. The letter was released Wednesday.

The consulting giant was hired in 2005 to - among other things - run a new computer system allowing Texans to apply for Medicaid, food stamps and other benefits over the phone, online or in person.

Problems plagued the project from the start, prompting more than a year of harsh rebukes from lawmakers, gubernatorial candidates and advocates for poor families. The commission announced plans to scale back the contract in December, but the two sides couldn't reach an agreement, Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins said.

The letter, signed by 30 of the 31 state senators, asks the inspector general to conduct an integrity review and, if warranted, a full-scale investigation of both the new computer system and the contract for running it.

Commission spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said the agency will provide any information that is requested.

"It's hard to imagine that there's a document in the building that hasn't already been provided to every losing candidate for governor, the employees union and IBM's attorneys, but we'll keep the copy machine warmed up and ready to go," she added.

The state's $899 million contract with Accenture was part of a massive effort to make it easier for people to apply for benefits.

The project as a whole was supposed to save the state nearly $650 million over five years. Hawkins said Wednesday he still expects the state to save money, but he could not estimate how much.

Accenture began running the new computer system in Travis and Hays counties a year ago and it was supposed to be implemented in all 254 Texas counties by the end of the year. But technical and operational problems forced Hawkins to indefinitely delay the rollout last spring.

Problems also cropped up when the Texas Access Alliance took over processing applications for the Children's Health Insurance Program, the state's low-cost health insurance program for the children of the working poor. Enrollment dipped below 300,000 for the first time since the program's infancy, but has since rebounded.

Advocates for poor families said contract workers lost CHIP applications and other paperwork, gave contradictory instructions about submitting information missing from their files and failed to credit payments to their accounts.

Democratic State Rep. Patrick Rose, who chairs the House human services committee, said his panel is committed to figuring out what went wrong with the Accenture contract and what needs to be done to prevent it from happening again.