Sunday, April 30, 2006

Houston Chronicle: Lawmakers skeptical of benefits screening

Lawmakers skeptical of benefits screening

Privatization plan for deciding eligibility has cut qualified children, not saved money

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau

AUSTIN - Cash-strapped lawmakers had high hopes three years ago of saving hundreds of millions in tax dollars by privatizing the state's eligibility screening of social services for children, the disabled, the poor and the elderly.

Four million Texans — more than the population of Harris County — on food stamps, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families could apply through an $899 million system of smarter computers connected to privately run call centers.

Modern technology, lawmakers believed, would ferret out fraud and save needy Texans the inconvenience of taking off work and showing up at government offices for face-to-face interviews.

Yet the tangled reality since the state began its transition to privatized screening four months ago has left that utopian dream in doubt: Thousands of children were erroneously cut from health insurance, the state delayed the fast-tracked statewide expansion of call centers with a pilot project in disarray, the expected savings have not been seen and complaints from clients and lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle abound.

Problems include:

•State officials on Friday abandoned plans to drop 28,000 more children from the Children's Health Insurance Program, admitting they'd put in place unfair bureaucratic burdens that need revamping.

•A state computer designed for one-stop shopping when checking eligibility for multiple programs is seven years in the making but remains incompatible with the private contractors' systems.

•The federal government's independent checks and the state's official records have shown high rates of abandoned calls and long hold times as the initial call center in Midland started up.

•Clients, their advocates and state lawmakers say they've documented instances of no response to applications submitted, call center operators unable to locate submitted applications, notices of missing information when the requested information was not needed and incorrect denials or delays of benefits.

•State officials acknowledge problems with staffing shortages and loss of expertise in state eligibility offices and too few and inadequately trained staff at a privately run call center.

"This process we're going through is historic. No other state has tried this," Texas Health and Human Services Commission spokeswoman Gail Randall said. "The rest of the country is looking at us. It should rise or fall on its own strength or weakness. The state could either successfully end up with a good, cutting-edge service model or it doesn't work. We're going to find out. It's a tough thing."

The commission has estimated that over five years Texas could save $646 million in state and federal funds by relying more on the Internet and call centers for screening applicants for social services.

So far, because of repeated delays in rolling out the program, the plan has yet to save the state a penny.

Skeptical politicians

Problems during a pilot phase of one portion of the project have proved so daunting that Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins announced earlier this month that an aggressive statewide rollout of the call centers to be completed by December has been put on hold until the system performs efficiently and meets contract terms.

Meanwhile, as evidence also mounts that thousands of eligible children and other Texans have either lost benefits or faced delays in getting them because of the dramatic changes, a political backlash has set in.

Liberal Democrats have long opposed the project, some of them fearing a nefarious hidden agenda to knock the poor and disabled out of social services.

And, as tough questions in legislative hearings and letters to Hawkins make clear, conservative Republicans are growing increasingly worried and skeptical about the economic implications of the state's $899 million, five-year privatization plan as well.

"I don't think anybody, regardless of party affiliation, wants to spend money on something that doesn't work," said Mary Katherine Stout, a health policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which advocates for limited government.

"The important thing in all of this is how expeditiously you act to solve the problems. The problems are serious," she said.

Concern for children

So far, the commission and a call center in Midland run by Texas Access Alliance, a business consortium headed by outsourcing giant Accenture LLP, have taken a two-pronged approach.

Statewide, the call center began processing applicants for CHIP and children's Medicaid on Nov. 28. In January, it also began screening applicants for food stamps, adult Medicaid, cash welfare and long-term care in a pilot area stretching from Austin to San Marcos.

The pilot was set to expand to 17 Hill Country counties this month and to Houston by August, but that schedule has been scrapped for now.

The goal eventually is for the privately run call centers and a reduced number of state-run eligibility offices to serve all clients in the statewide programs.

Yet advocates for Texas children say sharply reduced CHIP rolls — 30,000 fewer are now enrolled since December, the first full month the call center was in operation — coincided not only with stricter state rules requiring proof of income and assets but also with documented cases in which eligible children were bumped from CHIP through no fault of their parents.

When Accenture discovered it hadn't properly informed families of the new enrollment and renewal fees, for example, the state restored CHIP coverage to 6,000 children.

Other families say the call center had no record of applications they repeatedly mailed, or failed to duly note information sent in by parents to clear up misunderstandings.

Children's Medicaid rolls are falling precipitously as well: 79,000 fewer children were enrolled in February — the last month the agency released numbers — than in November.

Shorter rolls prompt study

Hawkins said the state has commissioned an independent study by the Institute for Child Health Policy at the University of Florida. It is surveying 1,800 families — half of them whose children are or have been enrolled in CHIP and the other half whose children are or have been enrolled in Medicaid — to find out why so many are dropping off the rolls.

The health commission also announced a $3 million outreach and education campaign to help families navigate the new rules and application forms.

Meanwhile, a corrective action plan is under way at the call center consortium, Texas Access Alliance. It has beefed up its Midland customer service staff from 210 to 360 and started training them better, said Stephanie Goodman, of the Health and Human Services Commission. The private contractors intend to add 160 more customer service staff during May. Last week, Accenture senior executive Dave McCurley cited dramatic improvements with the call center.

Fewer abandoned calls

Official performance reports to the state confirm that a nearly 72 percent rate of abandoned phone calls on March 20 had been reduced to almost 10 percent on April 24.

Callers who waited more than 40 minutes on hold last month were waiting just over two minutes, the records show.

"We are confident we will deliver value and results for the citizens of Texas," said McCurley, who also is executive director of Texas Access Alliance.

Such assurances have not proved enough to calm the nerves of a growing number of lawmakers, although they are happy the project has been slowed down.

Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, sent a letter to every member of the House and Senate in March, warning them that if problems weren't fixed now they'd be hearing from angry constituents, including doctors and health plans, when their own districts began relying on call centers. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said lawmakers should have considered transition costs before approving the privatization plan.

"There's plenty of blame to go around," he said. "My goal as chairman of finance is to make sure it's a system that an objective observer can say, 'This is a competently run system and it's fair to the people who are eligible or not eligible.' "

State Rep. Martha Wong, R-Houston, wrote to Hawkins about her concerns that some children were unfairly bumped from CHIP.

"Thousands of children have been dropped from the CHIP rolls, and I am not at all convinced that it is for a good reason," she wrote.

"Is Accenture at fault? Are they mismanaging their duties? Is HHSC failing to provide the necessary level of oversight?" she asked.

"These issues are too important to the well-being of children in Texas to be ignored or politicized."

Friday, April 28, 2006

Texas not Stolen from Mexico, but liberated from Mexico by Mexicans

This is the flag that flew over the Alamo:

You will note that this is not the Lone Star flag, but looks an aweful lot like the Mexican flag. There is a simple reason for this. The Texas Revolution was a revolution of Mexican citizens, who revolted against the take over of the Mexican government by a dictator. The reason it has the date 1824, was that this was the date of the Mexican constitution that had been caste aside by Santa Anna.

Antonio López de Santa Anna

Texas was not the only part of Mexico to revolt against Santa Ann... just the only part that successfully revolted against him.

Most of the settlers in Texas -- particularly in East Texas -- were Anglos who were allowed to settle in Texas so long as they converted to Catholicism, and learned Spanish. Anglo settlers were brought in to Texas to do the jobs that most Mexicans would not do... such as fight Indians, East Texas mosquitoes, and roaches. However, there were also many of Mexican ancestry.

Among the heros of the Texas Revolution are numbered Juan Nepomuceno Seguin, for whom a city in Texas is named.

Lt. Col. Juan Seguin

Other Texas Patriots include:
Lorenzo de Zavala, the First Vice-President of the Repulic of Texas, and a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence:

Jose Antonio Navarro, who also signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, was a senator in the First Congress of the Republic of Texas, and went to advocate the secession of Texas from the US in 1861 -- with all four of his sons serving in the army of the Confederate States of America, two achieving the rank of Captain:

Jose Francisco Ruiz, who signed the Texas Declaration of Indepedence as well, and was a senator in the First Congress of the Republic of Texas:


My friend Samm Almaguer takes issue with my post, and states:

"Whatever the failings of Santa Ana, there is no excuse for citizens who collude with foreigners to wage war against their own country!"

I would respond by pointing out that there was not much foreign help in the Texas Revolution. Most of those fighting were citizens of Mexico. I would also point out that there was much more collaboration with foreigners in the American Revolution, where the Americans fought side-by-side with French troops, and were aided by the French Navy... whereas whatever help came from America came in the form of individual Americans who came to Texas to help fight the Revolution.

I would also point out that Texas was only part of Mexico for a period of about 10 years. Prior to that, it was part of Spain. However, even that was mostly in name only. Most of Texas was in the hands of Indians, and there was not much of a Spanish or Mexican presence in most of the State.

As for how it is that Texas wound up in the United States, Texas was an independent Republic for almost as long as it was part of Mexico. Texas had reason to fear a new Mexican invasion, and it was interested in the protection of the United States. And America had a functional democracy, and Mexico didn't. Texas petitioned the United States for years before it was accepted as a State. This then led to the Mexican American War.

One has to remember that prior to that war, the last war fought by the US military was the war of 1812... which did not go particularly well. Washington D.C. was burned to the ground. Our leaders were forced to flee. We won the war in the sense that we remained independent, but our military did not fare particularly well in most of the battles. The US resisted accepting Texas as a state in large part out of a concern for the reaction of Mexico. It was not obvious that the US would come out on top against the professional military of Mexico.

Mexico then attacked American troops along the Texas border, and then it was on, as they say. Thanks to the establishment of West Point after the war of 1812, our military came off in this war quite well... but again, no one could have been too confident that this would have been the result going into the war.

As a result of this war, initiated by Mexico, Mexico lost the rest of the Southwest. But the US did not initiate the war, and Mexico got the short end of the stick as a result of its attacking the United States. The United States had taken over all of nothern Mexico and Mexico City. We gave these parts of Mexico back, and paid Mexico 15 million dollars for the Southwest (not including Texas, which was already a State at this time), and assumed another 3.25 million dollars in debt that it owed to American citizens, at the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. This treaty was ratified by both governments.

Those who argue that states belong to Mexico should ask why it is that Mexicans come to America. Mexico is a country rich in natural resources, and has people who are hard working. However, what America has that Mexico doesn't have is a government that is not corrupt to the core. That is why property in California is very expensive, and property in Baja California isn't... even though there is little difference in the land itself.

I am all for Mexicans who are here legally taking their part in the American dream. However, the only thing that holds all Americans together is loyalty to the ideals of America. Those who wave Mexican flags, but demand American rights, should either go back to Mexico, and make it a country worth staying in, or wave American Flags and commit themselves to this country. If we do not have a common loyalty America, we will end up killing each other as the various tribes in America all fight for their own interests.

America not only has a right to control its border, but in the post-9/11 world, we have absolutely no choice but to do so. Also, as one who is married to a legal immigrant, and knows many other legal residents who came to this country through the proper legal channels, I can tell you that those who have gone through those channels do not believe it is fair for people to jump ahead of the line, make their own rules, and then demand citizenship. Either we should throw open the borders to the world... which would destroy this country, or we should have immigration policies that apply equally across the board.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Pascha in Dachau, 1945

The Russian Memorial Chapel at Dachau
Click here to the see the interior

Pascha in Dachau

Gleb Alexandrovitch Rahr - Prisoner R (Russian)

Dachau concentration camp, April 27th, 1945

This is my father's account of how he celebrated the feast in 1945.

The last transport of prisoners arrives from Buchenwald. Of the 5,000 originally destined for Dachau, I was among the 1,300 who had survived the trip. Many were shot, some starved to death, while others died of typhus... April 28th: I and my fellow prisoners can hear the bombardment of Munich taking place some 30 km from our concentration camp. As the sound of artillery approaches ever nearer from the west and the north, orders are given proscribing prisoners from leaving their barracks under any circumstances. SS-soldiers patrol the camp on motorcycles as machine guns are directed at us from the watch-towers, which surround the camp.

April 29th: The booming sound of artillery has been joined by the staccato bursts of machine gun fire. Shells whistle over the camp from all directions. Suddenly white flags appear on the towers - a sign of hope that the SS would surrender rather than shoot all prisoners and fight to the last man. Then, at about 6:00 p.m., a strange sound can be detected emanating from somewhere near the camp gate which swiftly increases in volume... Finally all 32,600 prisoners join in the cry as the first American soldiers appear just behind the wire fence of the camp. After a short while electric power is turned off, the gates open and the American GIs make their entrance. As they stare wide-eyed at our lot, half-starved as we are and suffering from typhus and dysentery, they appear more like fifteen-year-old boys than battle-weary soldiers...

An international committee of prisoners is formed to take over the administration of the camp. Food from SS-stores is put at the disposal of the camp kitchen. A US military unit also contributes some provision, thereby providing me with my first opportunity to taste American corn. By order of an American officer radio-receivers are confiscated from "prominent Nazis" in the town of Dachau and distributed to the various national groups of prisoners. The news come in: Hitler has committed suicide, the Russians have taken Berlin, and German troops have surrendered in the South and in the North. But the fighting still rages in Austria and Czechoslovakia...

Naturally, I was ever cognizant of the fact that these momentous events were unfolding during Holy Week. But how could we mark it, other than through our silent, individual prayers? A fellow-prisoner and chief interpreter of the International prisoner's committee, Boris F., paid a visit to my typhus-infested barrack "Block 27" to inform me that efforts were underway in conjunction with the Yugoslav and Greek National Prisoner's Committees to arrange an Orthodox service for Easter day, May 6th.

There were Orthodox priests, deacons and a group of monks from Mount Athos among the prisoners. But there were no vestments, no books whatsoever, no icons, no candles, no prosphoras, no wine... Efforts to acquire all these items from the Russian parish in Munich failed, as the Americans just could not locate anyone from that parish in the devastated city. Nevertheless, some of the problems could be solved: The approximately 400 Catholic priests detained in Dachau had been allowed to remain together in one barrack and recite mass every morning before going to work. They offered us Orthodox the use of their prayer room in "Block 26", which was just across the road from my own "block". The chapel was bare, save for a wooden table and a Czenstochowa icon of the Theotokos hanging on the wall above the table - an icon which had originated in Constantinople and was later brought to Belz in Galicia, where it was subsequently taken from the Orthodox by a Polish king. When the Russian Army drove Napoleon's troops from Czenstochowa, however, the abbot of the Czenstochowa Monastery gave a copy of the icon to czar Alexander I, who placed it in the Kazan Cathedral in Saint-Petersburg where it was venerated until the Bolshevik seizure of power. A creative solution to the problem of the vestments was also found. New linen towels were taken from the hospital of our former SS-guards. When sewn together lengthwise, two towels formed an epitrachilion and when sewn together at the ends they became an orarion. Red crosses, originally intended to be worn by the medical personnel of the SS-guards, were put on the towel-vestments.

On Easter Sunday, May 6th (April 23rd according to the Church calendar), - which ominously fell that year on Saint George the Victory-Bearer's Day, Serbs, Greeks and Russians gathered at the Catholic Priests barrack. Although Russians comprised about 40 percent of the Dachau inmates, only a few managed to attend the service. By that time "repatriation officers" of the special "Smersh" units had arrived in Dachau by American military planes, and begun the process of erecting new lines of barbed wire for the purpose of isolating Soviet citizens from the rest of the prisoners, which was the first step in preparing them for their eventual forced repatriation. In the entire history of the Orthodox Church there has probably never been an Easter service like the one at Dachau in 1945. Greek and Serbian priests together with a Serbian deacon adorned the make-shift "vestments" over their blue and gray-striped prisoners uniforms. Then they began to chant, changing from Greek to Slavonic, and then back again to Greek. The Easter Canon, the Easter Sticheras - everything was recited from memory. The Gospel - "In the beginning was the Word" - also from memory.

And finally, the Homily of Saint John Chrysostom - also from memory. A young Greek monk from the Holy Mountain stood up in front of us and recited it with such infectious enthusiasm that we shall never forget him as long as we live. Saint John Chrysostomos himself seemed to speak through him to us and to the rest of the world as well! Eighteen Orthodox priests and one deacon - most of whom were Serbs, participated in this unforgettable service. Like the sick man who had been lowered through the roof of a house and placed in front of the feet of Christ the Saviour, the Greek Archimandrite Meletios was carried on a stretcher into the chapel, where he remained prostrate for the duration of the service.

The priests who participated in the 1945 Dachau Easter service are commemorated at every Divine Service held in the Dachau Russian Orthodox Memorial Chapel, along with all Orthodox Christians, who lost their lives "at this place, or at another place of torture" ("na meste sem i v inykh mestakh mucheniya umuchennykh i ubiennykh"). The Dachau Resurrection-Chapel, which was constructed by a unit of the Russian Army's Western Group of Forces just before their departure from Germany in August, 1994, is an exact replica of a North-Russian "tent-domed" (Shatrovyie) church or chapel. Behind the altar-table of the chapel is a large icon depicting angels opening the gates of the Dachau concentration camp and Christ Himself leading the prisoners to freedom. Today I would like to take the opportunity to ask you, Orthodox Christians all over the world, to pass on the names of fellow Orthodox who were imprisoned and died here in Dachau or in other Nazi concentration camps so that we can include them in our prayers. Should you ever come to Germany, be sure to visit our Russian Chapel on the site of the former concentration camp in Dachau and pray for all those who died "at this place, or at another place of torture".

Khristos voskrese! Christos anesti! Christ has risen! El Messieh Qahm!

Paschal Blogging

The Holy Fire in Jerusalem

Pascha in Uganda.

Notes for Bright Week

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Salsa for the Goose is salsa for the Gander

Mexico Harsh to Undocumented Migrants

Associated Press Writer

TULTITLAN, Mexico (AP) -- Considered felons by the government, these migrants fear detention, rape and robbery. Police and soldiers hunt them down at railroads, bus stations and fleabag hotels. Sometimes they are deported; more often officers simply take their money.

While migrants in the United States have held huge demonstrations in recent weeks, the hundreds of thousands of undocumented Central Americans in Mexico suffer mostly in silence.

And though Mexico demands humane treatment for its citizens who migrate to the U.S., regardless of their legal status, Mexico provides few protections for migrants on its own soil. The issue simply isn't on the country's political agenda, perhaps because migrants make up only 0.5 percent of the population, or about 500,000 people - compared with 12 percent in the United States.

The level of brutality Central American migrants face in Mexico was apparent Monday, when police conducting a raid for undocumented migrants near a rail yard outside Mexico City shot to death a local man, apparently because his dark skin and work clothes made officers think he was a migrant.

Virginia Sanchez, who lives near the railroad tracks that carry Central Americans north to the U.S. border, said such shootings in Tultitlan are common.

"At night, you hear the gunshots, and it's the judiciales (state police) chasing the migrants," she said. "It's not fair to kill these people. It's not fair in the United States and it's not fair here."

Undocumented Central American migrants complain much more about how they are treated by Mexican officials than about authorities on the U.S. side of the border, where migrants may resent being caught but often praise the professionalism of the agents scouring the desert for their trail.

"If you're carrying any money, they take it from you - federal, state, local police, all of them," said Carlos Lopez, a 28-year-old farmhand from Guatemala crouching in a field near the tracks in Tultitlan, waiting to climb onto a northbound freight train.

Lopez said he had been shaken down repeatedly in 15 days of traveling through Mexico.

"The soldiers were there as soon as we crossed the river," he said. "They said, 'You can't cross ... unless you leave something for us.'"

Jose Ramos, 18, of El Salvador, said the extortion occurs at every stop in Mexico, until migrants are left penniless and begging for food.

"If you're on a bus, they pull you off and search your pockets and if you have any money, they keep it and say, 'Get out of here,'" Ramos said.

Maria Elena Gonzalez, who lives near the tracks, said female migrants often complain about abusive police.

"They force them to strip, supposedly to search them, but the purpose is to sexually abuse them," she said.

Others said they had seen migrants beaten to death by police, their bodies left near the railway tracks to make it look as if they had fallen from a train.

The Mexican government acknowledges that many federal, state and local officials are on the take from the people-smugglers who move hundreds of thousands of Central Americans north, and that migrants are particularly vulnerable to abuse by corrupt police.

The National Human Rights Commission, a government-funded agency, documented the abuses south of the U.S. border in a December report.

"One of the saddest national failings on immigration issues is the contradiction in demanding that the North respect migrants' rights, which we are not capable of guaranteeing in the South," commission president Jose Luis Soberanes said.

In the United States, mostly Mexican immigrants have staged rallies pressuring Congress to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants rather than making them felons and deputizing police to deport them. The Mexican government has spoken out in support of the immigrants' cause.

While Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal said Monday that "Mexico is a country with a clear, defined and generous policy toward migrants," the nation of 105 million has legalized only 15,000 immigrants in the past five years, and many undocumented migrants who are detained are deported.

Although Mexico objects to U.S. authorities detaining Mexican immigrants, police and soldiers usually cause the most trouble for migrants in Mexico, even though they aren't technically authorized to enforce immigration laws.

And while Mexicans denounce the criminalization of their citizens living without papers in the United States, Mexican law classifies undocumented immigration as a felony punishable by up to two years in prison, although deportation is more common.

The number of undocumented migrants detained in Mexico almost doubled from 138,061 in 2002 to 240,269 last year. Forty-two percent were Guatemalan, 33 percent Honduran and most of the rest Salvadoran.

Like the United States, Mexico is becoming reliant on immigrant labor. Last year, then-director of Mexico's immigration agency, Magdalena Carral, said an increasing number of Central Americans were staying in Mexico, rather than just passing through on their way to the U.S.

She said sectors of the Mexican economy facing labor shortages often use undocumented workers because the legal process for work visas is inefficient.

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More HHSC Collapse Updates

Samm Almaguer talks about how they are now trying to hire more temps, for 6 months. Keep in mind, when I was hired, they took 6 months to train me before I was even sent to a field office to begin working on a reduced schedule... and it took another 6 months before I was really any where close to being up to speed as a case worker... and that is about the best that can be expected. This is window dressing, that will cost more money, but accomplish almost nothing.

The only temps that will be of any use will be former HHSC staff who need a job, and they will be the ones who are out of work at the moment, and so will be looking for something permanent elsewhere.

Social services screener upsets House members

Social services screener upsets House members
Budget writers say contractor's call centers are denying access to eligible Texans

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau

AUSTIN - Angry House budget writers demanded Monday to know if the state will consider firing a new private contractor — or barring it from other state jobs — if its staffers continue bumping eligible Texans from health and welfare services.

The contract with Texas Access Alliance, headed by outsourcing giant Accenture LLP, is part of a major overhaul of eligibility screening of social services for children, the elderly, disabled and poor.

While lawmakers once were told the project would save the state $646 million over five years, that's now in doubt. The state recently decided to slow the project, beef up training and fix an array of technical and operational problems.

"I think each and every one of us are pretty disappointed with how this has turned out," Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, said at the meeting of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services.

"We're watching," Gattis told Texas Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins, who signed the contract with Accenture. "I'm going to tell you, we as a body are going to hold accountable companies that are taking taxpayer dollars to do things for our state."

Dave McCurley, senior executive of Texas Access Alliance, issued a statement noting that the agency reports clients want to use the screening call centers and that call center performance improved dramatically in April.

"In fact, last week nearly 19,000 calls were received with callers waiting on average only 45 seconds before they were connected to a customer service representative," he said.

The Midland call center currently is screening eligibility of children in the state's poorest families for Medicaid health insurance. It is also screening other low-income applicants for the Children's Health Insurance Program.

But as of last week, 30,000 children had been dropped from CHIP since the contractor began running the call center in December, and the state issued stricter income and asset rules for applicants.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said he finds the plunging CHIP rolls alarming, noting the number of children served has fallen from 500,000 in 2003 to fewer than 300,000 now.

"It is tanking. Whether we want to deal with it or not, I think we have reached a crisis state with the CHIP program, and I am not a big fan of the contractors we are using," Turner said. "I speak for me, but if I hired them, I would fire them."

The call center also began screening adult clients Jan. 20 in Travis and Hays counties for Medicaid, food stamps, long-term care and cash welfare under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, said her staff is spending all its time trying to remedy application problems within the pilot area, including 90 minutes on hold with the call center Friday.

"That's a call from a legislative office — truly unacceptable," Dukes said.

Anne Heiligenstein, HHSC's deputy executive commissioner for social services, told Dukes she agrees but added the agency is monitoring call center operations to see if corrective actions are working.

The pilot was scheduled to expand to 17 counties in the Texas Hill Country later this month and to the Houston area by August, but Hawkins has delayed further rollout until problems are resolved.

Dukes warned that lawmakers in the rest of the state will not be "happy campers" when it comes time to appropriate money next biennium if their offices go through the turmoil hers has in helping constituents.

She complained that one constituent sent four applications, two by certified mail, but the call center said they were not received.

She asked Hawkins to provide her with a timeline of how long the state is willing to work with the Accenture team if the call center problems persist.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Carlos Guerra: USDA letter to state welfare bosses shows call centers' problems

Carlos Guerra: USDA letter to state welfare bosses shows call centers' problems

Web Posted: 04/16/2006 12:00 AM CDT
San Antonio Express-News

Just before closing time on April 5, Health and Human Services Commission head Albert Hawkins announced that Texas' new call centers — run by Bermuda-based outsourcing behemoth Accenture — wouldn't be rolled out as planned.

Callers were experiencing unexpectedly long wait times, Hawkins said, and some operators weren't adequately trained. The $899 million experiment also needs to resolve some technical issues, he said. So, until the flaws are fixed, expansion of the boiler-room operations will be put off indefinitely.

HHSC started rolling out the four-call-center system Jan. 20, when Accenture's Midland call center started screening applications from the Austin-San Marcos area for the Children's Health Insurance Program, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and long-term care.

The plan was that by year's end the call centers would be fully functional and doing the work of 2,900 state workers who will be fired as HHSC closes 99 of its 310 field offices.

About the same time that the call centers went online, however, a number of changes to the application process and in eligibility requirements also took effect.

The results were predictable.

There were widespread reports of botched and lost applications, and erroneous denials of benefits not only in the Austin-San Marcos area, but statewide. And enrollment in Texas' social services safety net programs plummeted, a precipitous drop still in progress.

Enrollment in CHIP, which once insured more than 500,000 kids from families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but still can't afford commercial insurance, dropped below 300,000. Even larger declines were reported for Medicaid, which insures Texas' poorest.

In three months, 21,000 children lost CHIP coverage, and an additional 79,000 lost Medicaid, prompting state officials to order reinstatement of CHIP benefits for at least 6,000 kids mistakenly dropped.

Now, it appears that delaying the rollout of Accenture's call centers wasn't entirely the doing of conscientious state officials.

On April 5, Hawkins received a scorching letter from the U.S. Agricultural Department's Food and Nutrition Services, which administers the Food Stamp Program that pumps billions of dollars into Texas grocery store registers.

"We believe you will agree ... that the following concerns give pause to expansion to the next rollout area without substantial improvements in system functionality," USDA Regional Administrator William Ludwig wrote. "Vendor performance is questionable as evidenced by the high percentage of cases that are returned to the vendor because of missing information and errors (40 percent), (and) case file documentation needs to be substantially improved to support program access and integrity."

A five-page attachment pointed out that instead of the 5 percent of callers HHSC expected would hang up, as many as 54.5 percent abandoned their phone calls because of interminable waits.

The feds' random review of call-center recordings also found that Accenture's operators were "sending clients to the wrong certification office; telling clients that applications would be processed in 30 business days; not providing information on the complaint process to clients who complained of rude treatment; clients were referred between (call centers) and local offices; and incorrect information (was given) about the appointment process."

This mess cannot be allowed to grow. Action is needed now.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Interfax: Yury Gagarin was an Orthodox Christian

I am proud to be accused of having introduced Yury Gagarin to Orthodoxy

The history of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian cosmonauts began at the moment when a human being was first launched into space. These relations developed even when the Soviet state waged an intensive struggle with religion. In recent years these relations have been given a special positive impulse. Some episodes in the cooperation between the Orthodox Church and Russian cosmonauts have been related to Interfax-Religion by one of its principal eyewitnesses, Colonel Valentin Petrov, associate professor at the Gagarin Air Force Academy.

- Valentin Vasilyevich, you and Yury Gagarin were close friends. The first cosmonaut is reported by some to have been a believer, though he never made a show of it. Is it possible to say that faith was another private go-between in your friendship as young Soviet pilots in those difficult years of state atheism?

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in Space

- Yury Gagarin, just as every Russian, was baptized, and, as far as I can know, was a believer. What remains unforgettable for me is our trip together to St. Sergius Laura of the Trinity in 1964, just on the day when Gagarin marked his 30th birthday. He, a very lively man, once asked me straightforwardly if I had ever been to the Laura. Answered in the affirmative, he suggested that we go once again, and we went straight away, the same evening, after changing our clothes into ‘civilian’ ones. Perfect fools we were, because whatever Gagarin might change into... Crowds of people in the Laura would immediately begin flocking to him for autograph. Hardly the church service ended as everybody, having learnt about his coming, hastened to meet him. Such was people’s love of Yury, and he could not refuse anybody.

Yury was a unique personality. He never boasted of his fame. If you came to him, he saw nobody else and listened only to you. And his children, too, were never pompous about their being the children of the first ever cosmonaut.

At that time in the Laura, we, Gagarin in the first place, were saved by the father superior. He took us to his cell and, and as is Russian custom filled glasses and after the third jigger said, “Well, who will believe Gagarin was in my cell?” And Gagarin answered him with the same humor, “Well, this is for those who will not believe”, and took out his picture and wrote on it, “To Father Superior from Gagarin with best wishes”. The father superior said, “Well, we have to toast it!” And we toasted it, of course!

Then the father superior suggested that we should visit TsAG. We answered, wondering, “Why, father? We have been to TsAGI!”, meaning our Central Aerohydrodynamics Institute. It turned out later that he meant the Church Archeology Museum at the Moscow Theological Academy. Of course, we went there and something happened there that amazed me absolutely. When we came to look at the model of Church of Christ the Saviour, Yury looked inside it, then said to me, “Valentin, look what a lovely thing they have destroyed!” He kept looking at it for a long time.

When we were coming back from the Laura that time, we were so impressed by what we saw that we drove like in a hypnotic trance. Yury said suddenly, “Valentin, just think about the words ‘who art in heaven’. I glared at him, “Yury, don’t you know the prayer?!” He said, “You think you alone know it? Well, you know how to keep silent”. Indeed, it was 1964, the time when Khruschev promised “a show of the last parson”.

For me that trip had repercussions. I was accused of “drawing Gagarin into religion”. It was Gagarin himself who saved me by stating, “How come a captain draws a colonel into religion? He did not take me there, but we went on my car”. As a result, the party reprimanded me for “drawing Yury into Orthodoxy”, and now I am proud of it.

Some time after our trip, Yury Gagarin, speaking at the Central Committee plenary session on education of the youth, suggested openly that the Church of Christ the Saviour should be restored as a monument of military glory and an outstanding Orthodox work. At the same time, he proposed to restore the Triumphal Arch, which lay in ruins at that time. Gagarin’s motive was very simple: patriotism cannot be promoted without the knowledge of one’s roots. Since the Church of Christ the Saviour is a monument of military glory, those who go to defend their Motherland should know it.

Nobody at the meeting expected such a statement from the first cosmonaut. The response was incredible, a storm of applause. The presidium was seriously scared, of course, but certainly they could do nothing against Yury Gagarin.

- And what about the famous phrase ascribed to Gagarin: “I have been to space but have not seen God”?

- In fact, it was not Gagarin but Khruschev who said it. It happened during the Central Committee plenary meeting that considered anti-religious propaganda. Khruschev then gave all the Party and Komsomol organizations the task to engage in this propaganda and said: Why should you clutch at God? Here is Gagarin who flew to space but saw no God there. But some time later these words began to be presented in a different aspect. References were made not to Khruschev but to Gagarin who, indeed, was the people’s favourite and such a statement from his lips could be of tremendous importance. They said, few would believe Khruschev but everybody would certainly believe Gagarin. But Gagarin never said that, he just couldn’t utter such words.

- That trip together with Gagarin, did it begin your tradition of taking your students at the Air Force Academy to holy places?

- Generally speaking, it did, after I went to the Laura together with German Titov, who, incidentally, was also Orthodox. When we were in St. Pete together, he asked me in the first place to take him to St. Alexander Nevsky’s Laura. And later, under the impression of his visit to the Laura, German asked me to go with him to Zagorsk. Incidentally, Titov and I together visited Patriarch Alexy II even before he was enthroned as patriarch, when His Holiness served as metropolitan in Leningrad.

The Baptism of Rus', 988 A.D.

There was another remarkable case when a message of greetings came from space on the occasion of the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia. When Volodya Titov was to fly into space to stay there for a year, I first of all took him to TsAK and then to Danilov monastery. He flew in the year of the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia. The launching was planned for December 21, 1987, and the landing 12 months later, that is, he was in orbit throughout the year of the Millennium. When he was approved, he wanted to receive a blessing upon his flight. I took him late at night to the then chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, His Eminence Filaret. We had a striking meeting. Volodya was given a church calendar devoted to the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia and many icons. Volodya also liked very much the tea we took, so the metropolitan ordered that several sets be packed especially for him, and through the year my friend enjoyed a hierarchal tea in orbit.

When Volodya congratulated from orbit the whole of the Soviet Union on the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia, everybody here were just stupefied: where did he know that from? Well, did not he have a church calendar in orbit? I was well bounced, sacked from every place, but on the following day Gorbachev met with Patriarch Pimen and other hierarchs on the occasion of the Millennium, and the accusations somewhat abated ever since.

Once I got an idea to take the Americans to the Laura, the more so that it was in 1975, the year of the Soyuz-Appolo. We, our first team of cosmonauts and American astronauts, went there before the launch. We gave the interpreter to drink so much that ultimately he had to be replaced by one of the fathers. We took an incredible picture of the trip and hung it in the Moscow Patriarchate. When foreign delegations came and said we were an atheistic state, we answered, “How can you say so? Look, these are our cosmonauts and these are American astronauts!” They had nothing to say to that.

Generally, this tradition began as far back as the 1960s as I took all the crews I trained to St. Sergius’s Laura of the Trinity and to St. Daniel’s Monastery. The father superior of the Danilov Monastery was my friend. I was a catechizer teaching kids and myself learning.

- But in the atheistic period such trips could not go unpunished for you as a military pilot...

- The party continually rebuked me. But it could not sack me as by that time had become a well-known teacher and cosmonauts defended me with all their might. Just another time I was to be budged, they would say: remove anyone but him. Though I was nearly bounced on several occasions. Once the commander of the cosmonaut team would learn that I, such a cheeky fellow, took everybody to monasteries, a small row would follow. The more so that I read a course on philosophy at the Air Force Academy at that time. It was a deadly trick to speak about Orthodoxy under atheism as official ideology. Still I as a teacher of cosmonauts continued to take them to monasteries.

- But now, years after, you can freely speak about Orthodox culture with your students.

Some time later, our patriarch arranged with the minister of culture for teaching Orthodox culture in military academies. I am the only representative of the military who was among the first to be admitted to the catechism department of St. Tikhon’s Institute. This year will mark the tenth anniversary since I graduated from the catechism course. His Holiness himself presented me with a graduation certificate.

I believe generally that it is impossible to study Russian history while neglecting the history of the Russian Orthodox Church and the basics of Orthodox faith. You can find as many examples as you want pointing to the need of such study. The same St. Sergius’s Laura of the Trinity withstood a Polish siege for 16 months. How can a military man be ignorant of that?

- As an aviation colonel and teacher with a 40-year experience, how can you explain the special need for religious belief felt by those who are involved in the military service?

- As a pilot constantly risks his life he nolens volens comes to the Lord. The military conceive a true faith in exactly this situation. I consider it my duty to educate my students in the Orthodox spirit. I do not take them by hand and pull to the baptismal font. Indeed, it is impossible to force one to believe, just as to love. But many students of our academy themselves undergo baptism while studying.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Train Wreck Continues: CHIP enrollment falls for fourth straight month

CHIP enrollment falls for fourth straight month
Critics blame new state contractor.
By Liz Austin


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The number of children enrolled in Texas' low-cost insurance program for low-income workers has fallen for the fourth straight month, with more than 9,000 kids leaving the rolls at the beginning of April, officials announced Tuesday.

More than 30,000 children have left the Children's Health Insurance Program since Dec. 1, with total enrollment dipping to about 292,700 as of April 1, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission said.

That's the lowest number of participants since 2001, when the program was in its infancy.

Families in CHIP must renew their coverage every six months.

More than half of the children who left the rolls this month were cut because their families failed to pay a new enrollment fee of up to $50 that the state began collecting this year. The fees, which vary based on a family's income, replace monthly premiums created in 2003 and suspended a year later after thousands of families fell behind on payments.

Barbara Best, executive director of the Children's Defense Fund of Texas, blamed the enrollment drop on the new state contractor that began processing CHIP applications last fall.

She said families have told her that the Texas Access Alliance, a group of companies led by the technology consulting firm Accenture, has lost documents or failed to process them, and its operators have given conflicting answers to the same questions.

"The families that we've talked to . . . are being very diligent," she said. "They're doing their part, and they're sending in the information, but the information is not being received."

David McCurley, Texas Access Alliance's executive director, said the group is working on CHIP enrollment problems.

Commission spokeswoman Gail Randall said the state and the contractor aren't receiving many complaints about the problems Best described.

"We cannot solve a problem until we identify it," she said. "If they know who needs help, they need to tell us."

Last week, the commission delayed the rollout of another Accenture-led project until technical and customer service improvements could be made. That program involves a new computer system that lets people apply for benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families over the phone, online or in person.

Best said the state should likewise stop cutting children from CHIP because the two programs' problems are so similar.

"This program should be growing and not shrinking," she said. "We need to act immediately to prevent more children from losing coverage."

Last month, the state tried to stem the loss of coverage by reaching out to families who hadn't turned in renewal paperwork and extending the deadline to do so.

On Tuesday, Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins unveiled a $3 million outreach campaign for CHIP and Children's Medicaid, which also has seen large drops in enrollment in recent months.

The campaign will begin in May and include radio ads in English and Spanish, messages on buses and bus benches and ads on Spanish-language television stations.

The Da Vinci Code and the "Gospel of Judas" coverage only goes to prove...

"No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."
-H. L. Mencken

Read this review of Elaine Pagel's book "The Gnostic Gospels" by noted Bible Scholar Raymond Brown.

h/t Emergesque

Also, Cal Thomas comments on how the media greets Christians each Christmas and Easter with predictable attacks on our faith.

Inherit The Whirlwind comments on the Christian Riots that have broken out in response to these attacks on the Christian Faith.

Fr. Joseph Huneycutt tells of the reaction to this in a Sunday School class.

Monday, April 10, 2006

More on the "Gospel of Judas"

Ben Witherington, who is a well known Biblical Scholar, and a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, has a blog, and has posted several things of interest on this subject:

The Gospel of Judas et al.---Part One

The Gospel of Judas--- Part Two

The Gospel of Judas-- the NPR Discussion

You can listen to that NPR discussion that he blogs about by clicking on this page, and taking your choice of Windows Media or Real Audio formats.

The shame of the format of this show was that you had one conservative guest who knew what he was talking about, two liberal scholars with fairly far out views, a talk show host who didn't have a clue, and a bunch of wine and cheese liberal callers who had even less of a clue. Who would have thought that NPR would have stacked the deck in favor of the liberals?

Fr. Joseph Huneycutt posts about this here, and has a link to this article in Get Religion.

Eric Jobe, who is a graduate student at the University of Chicago in Northwest Semitic Philology, has a post here.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

St. Irenaeus' Primary Beef with Gnosticism

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, author of Against Heresies (c. 130 - c. 200 a.d.)

In the course of the discussion about the Gospel of Judas, repeated mention has been made of the fact that St. Irenaeus mentions this Gnostic Gospel in his treatise "Against Heresies" [1:31:1]:

"Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas."

Little mention has been made however of St. Irenaeus primary arguments against the Gnostics. The Gnostics were a religious movement with some similarities to the New Age movement of today, and this movement predated the time of Christ, and has no origins whatsoever in the Hebraic tradition. Gnostic, like New Agers, like to use elements of other religions as window dressing, for their non-Christian beliefs, and when they encountered Christianty, some of them began to use Christian window dressing. They claimed to have a secret tradition from Christ, but different Gnostic gospels claimed that this source came via different routes. However, what they all had in common was that there was no historical evidence that they could produce to substantiate their claims to having any connection with Christ. Here is the gist of St. Irenaeus' refutation of these claims:

"As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this Faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believed these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the Tradition is one and the same. Neither do the Churches among the Germans believe otherwise or have another Tradition, nor do those among the Iberians, nor among the Celts, nor away in the East, or in Egypt, nor in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But just as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the Truth shines everywhere and enlightens all men who desire to come to a knowledge of the Truth. Nor will any of the rulers in the Churches, whatever his power of eloquence, teach otherwise, for no on is above the Teacher; nor will he who is weak in speaking subtract from the Tradition. For the Faith is one and the same, and cannot be amplified by one who is able to say much about it, nor can it be diminished by one who can say but little" [Against Heresies 1:10:2]."

"It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to "the perfect" apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.

Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say, ] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome despatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spake with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the apostolical tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things….

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,-a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles,-that, namely, which is handed down by the Church. There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, "Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within." And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, "Dost thou know me? ""I do know thee, the first-born of Satan." Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth; as Paul also says, "A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself." There is also a very powerful Epistle of Polycarp written to the Philippians, from which those who choose to do so, and are anxious about their salvation, can learn the character of his faith, and the preaching of the truth. Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles" [3:3:1-4].

"When, therefore, we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek among others the Truth which is easily obtained from the Church. For the Apostles, like a rich man in a bank, deposited with her most copiously everything which pertains to the Truth, and everyone whosoever wishes draws from her the drink of life. For she is the entrance to life, while all the rest are thieves and robbers. That is why it is surely necessary to avoid them, while cherishing with the utmost diligence the things pertaining to the Church, and to lay hold of the Traditions of Truth. What then? If there should be a dispute over some kind of question, ought we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches in which the Apostles were familiar, and draw from them what is clear and certain in regard to that question? What if the Apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of Tradition, which was handed down to those whom they entrusted the Churches?" [3:4:1].

In short, the teachings of the Orthodox Church have a historical record that can be examined, and St. Irenaeus could say "I was taught the faith by St. Polycarp, and he was taught it by the Apostle John himself". The Gnostics had nothing but claims and assertions without any evidence to support their claims -- and this in the face of overwhelming evidence that their teachings had no roots at all in the Judeo-Christian Tradition.

"Gospel of Judas" Coverage Betrays Media's Lack of Theological Literacy

From Newsbusters:
"Gospel of Judas" Coverage Betrays Media's Lack of Theological Literacy
Posted by Tim Graham on April 9, 2006 - 07:25.

Friday's enraptured major-media roll-out of a purported "Gospel of Judas," which claims that Judas was actually Christ's best buddy, betraying him only so he could slip out of his awful human body, drew harsh words from conservative bloggers. At The Volokh Conspiracy, media critic David Kopel whacked away (Hat tip: Instapundit):

This Friday's coverage of the so-called "Gospel of Judas" in much of the U.S. media was appallingly stupid. The Judas gospel is interesting in its own right, but the notion that it disproves, or casts into doubt, the traditional orthodox understanding of the betrayal of Jesus is preposterous...

Suppose that sometime around the year 3,800 A.D., someone wrote a newspaper that began: "According to a recently-discovered document, which appears to have been written sometime before 1926, Benedict Arnold did not attempt to betray George Washington and the American cause, as is commonly believed. Rather, Benedict Arnold was acting at the request of George Washington, because Washington wanted Arnold to help him create a dictatorship of the proletariat and the abolition of private property."

A reader who knew her ancient history would recognize that the newly-discovered "Arnold document" was almost certainly not a historically accurate account of the relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold...

In the March 2 issue of USA Today, ancient Egyptian documents expert James Robinson correctly predicted that the owners of the Judas Gospel manuscript would attempt to release it to coincide with the publicity build-up for "The DaVinci Code" movie, but explained that the "gospel" was part of a genre of pseudo-gospels from the second century onward, in which the authors simply made up the stories. In contrast, virtually all serious scholarship about the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) believes that they were written much closer to the events they describe--sometime in the first century a.d.

The influential Christian bishop Irenaeus, in his treatise Against Heresies, written in 180 a.d., denounced the Gospel of Judas as the product of a gnostic sect called the Cainites. (Book 1, ch. 31, para. 1.)

It's doubtful that network TV producers were paging through their dog-eared copies of Ireneaus to assemble their good-Judas stories. Catholic apologist and blogger Mark Shea suggested the roll-out displays the theological illiteracy of the media and our culture in general:

In a culture so theologically and historically illiterate as ours--a culture that takes the Da Vinci Code with utmost seriousness--it goes without saying that the selfsame people who are exacting to a degree when it comes to the canonical gospels will drink in the Gospel of Judas without a dram of critical thought. You've seen it all before. "Mark place two angels at the tomb, but Matthew only notes one! The witnesses are hopelessly contradictory and worthless!" Likewise, if you point to the overwhelming testimony of the early church on the apostolic origins of the four gospels, you get nitnoid "analyses" of this or that Greek word which somehow is supposed to prove that the gospels are fabrications without any relation to the apostolic testimony.

But when somebody drags out an *obvious* second century document bearing every earmark of a typical gnostic school of thought (Jesus jabbering about "the man that clothed me" and all the typical stuff that went with the whole "spirit=good/body=bad" mindset so foreign to both Jesus and the apostles, credulous gulls in the MSM are ready to treat the notion that this is a genuine record of an eyewitness as settled fact.

The most hilarious irony of all of this is that many of the hedonists and "sacred feminists" who are so eager for the gnostic Jesus would not want to have touched a real gnostic with a barge pole. After all, when your religious theory tells you that matter is a prison and women are the means by which spirit is imprisoned in matter, this tends to give rise to a rather low view of women.

One of the great favors some historian is going to have to do us all one day will be to compare the status of women in the early Church, not with the ludicrous notions of the Idealized Pre-Christian Sacred Feminine Paganism of Dan Brown and his research drudgewench Blythe, but with the average life of women in pre-Christian paganism and Judaism. I have no illusion that the lot of women vastly improved with the dawn of the gospel, just as the lot of slaves did not not immediately improve. But the notion that everything was just peachy for women until the Evil Church suddenly instituted patriarchy and crushed Woman underfoot is something that, well, only a culture as historically and theologically illiterate as ours could believe.

Carlos Guerra: Privatizing social services assistance hasn't been smooth process

Carlos Guerra: Privatizing social services assistance hasn't been smooth process

Web Posted: 04/09/2006 12:00 AM CDT

San Antonio Express-News

In 2003, Texas lawmakers overhauled the state's social services, shuffling programs into newly created agencies and forming a new Health and Human Services Commission to oversee it all. Now we are seeing the impact as more kids land in emergency rooms and more people show up to neighborhood food pantries.

Driven by the mantra that "the private sector can do it better and cheaper," House Bill 2292 also reduced benefits provided by federal-state programs that assist the elderly, young, poor and disabled. It eliminated many benefits entirely and restricted eligibility for assistance while reducing the time one could receive help before having to reapply.

For example, residents of nursing homes, where depression and diabetes are rampant, had psychiatric and podiatric care cut, and annual insurance coverage was trimmed to six months — with a 90-day period of non-coverage to penalize those who miss the deadline.

But the big cost-saver, we were told, would come from privatizing functions performed by state workers. A private contractor might realize great savings for Texas if it was determined — scientifically — that a contractor at a price determined by competitive bidding could handle these functions more efficiently.

But quickly, it became apparent that outsourcing wouldn't be determined scientifically and bidding wouldn't be that competitive. The HHSC rushed out a very questionable study that anticipated almost $700 million in savings by privatizing eligibility functions and just as quickly awarded a contract to Bermuda-based Accenture for four call centers, the largest of which — coincidentally — is in House Speaker Tom Craddick's Midland district.

And soon after Accenture started replacing the 2,900 professional state workers with $7-an-hour call center operators, it became apparent that taking orders for a home shopping cable network isn't the same as navigating the minutia of federal regulations.

Test operations in the Austin-area counties, where there aren't that many benefits recipients, resulted in thousands of CHIP, Food Stamp and Medicaid enrollees vanishing from the rolls as complaints of unmailed and missing applications — and entire files that disappeared — were registered in the thousands.

As the call centers' rollout extended into nearby counties in accordance with a plan that will make their reach statewide by year's end, it became apparent that the new multimillion-dollar computer system on which call centers rely doesn't work and the call center operators are very poorly trained.

On April 3, an internal memo from HHSC officials to the remaining state workers noted that "due to processing issues, certification periods are being extended for some TIERS Food Stamp (recipients whose) current certification period is ending on March 31, 2006."

Translation: To avoid news of another embarrassingly large reduction of Food Stamp enrollees, just extend recipients wholesale, whether they deserve it or not, until we can get this damned thing to work.

Two days later, another e-mail said "technical and operational improvements need to be made before we roll out the new system in other areas," so the call centers will be put on hold for at least 30 days.

Isn't it time for Texas to join at least four states, the province of Ontario and the Marine Corps and just fire Accenture?

"The Gospel of Judas" has no historical connections with Christ, Judas, or Early Christians

An expert on ancient Egyptian texts is predicting that the "Gospel of Judas" — a manuscript from early Christian times that's nearing release amid widespread interest from scholars — will be a dud in terms of learning anything new about Judas.

James M. Robinson, America's leading expert on such ancient religious texts from Egypt, predicts in a new book that the text won't offer any insights into the disciple who betrayed Jesus. His reason: While it's old, it's not old enough.

"Does it go back to Judas? No," Robinson told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The text, in Egypt's ancient Coptic language, dates from the third or fourth century and is a copy of an earlier document.

The National Geographic Society, along with other groups, has been studying the "Judas" text.

The society said Thursday it would release its report on the document "within the next few weeks" but didn't specify whether that would come via a book, magazine article or telecast.

Robinson has not seen the text that National Geographic is working on, but assumes it is the same work assailed by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons around A.D. 180.

Irenaeus said the writings came from a "Cainite" Gnostic sect that jousted against orthodox Christianity.

He also accused the Cainites of lauding the biblical murderer Cain, the Sodomites and Judas, whom they regarded as the keeper of secret mysteries.

National Geographic's collaborators on the translation and interpretation of the text include its current owner — Mario Roberti's Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland — and the Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery in La Jolla, Calif.

Rodolphe Kasser, formerly of the University of Geneva, is the editor.

Robinson writes that the journey of the text to Switzerland was "replete with smugglers, black-market antiquities dealers, religious scholars, backstabbing partners and greedy entrepreneurs."

In the process, Robinson fears, the fragile text may have been mishandled and parts of it lost forever.

Robinson is an emeritus professor at Claremont Graduate University in California, chief editor of religious documents found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and an international leader among scholars of Coptic manuscripts.

He says the text is valuable to scholars of the second century, but dismissed the notion that it'll reveal unknown biblical secrets.

He speculated the timing of the release is aimed at capitalizing on interest in the film version of "The Da Vinci Code" — a fictional tale that centers on a Christian conspiracy to cover up a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

"There are a lot of second-, third- and fourth-century gospels attributed to various apostles," Robinson said. "We don't really assume they give us any first-century information."

A National Geographic response said "it's ironic" for Robinson to raise such questions since for years "he tried unsuccessfully to acquire this codex himself, and is publishing his own book in April, despite having no direct access to the materials."

National Geographic said it practiced "due diligence" with scholars "to save the manuscript before it turns to dust and is lost forever" and that everyone involved is committed to returning the materials to Egypt.

In "The Secrets of Judas," a HarperSanFrancisco book on sale April 1, Robinson will describe secretive maneuvers in the United States, Switzerland, Greece and elsewhere over two decades to sell the "Judas" manuscript.

He writes that he was approached about purchasing a group of manuscripts in 1983 and arranged for colleague Stephen Emmel, now at the University of Muenster, Germany, to meet in Geneva with go-betweens for the owner.

Emmel got a glimpse of the text but didn't know it was the "Gospel of Judas" till years later. He was told the original asking price was $10 million but it could be obtained for $3 million, an impossibly high figure for the interested Americans.

From there, Robinson traces a twisted sales trail through years and continents to this year's impending release.

Emmel is now a member of the National Geographic team along with other former students of Robinson, who hopes his colleagues will be providing solid information about the text's history and location.

Friday, April 07, 2006

HHSC Collapse Round Up

An anonymous HHSC Employee has begun a new blog today. This is someone still on the inside, and so it will be interesting to see what they have to say. My own experience of blogging about HHSC while still working there showed me that blogging anonymously about HHSC when you still work there is probably a good idea.

The intrepid reporter Samm Almaguer has the text of a letter that Commissioner Albert Hawkins sent out to HHSC staff, about the lattest delays in rolling out the new system that doesn't work. He also has more commentary from his contacts on the inside.

Off the Kuff comments on the predictability of the failure of this call center.

The reason why this call center is not working is that the policies that have to be applied are very complicated. Many people on the outside think that everyone who works in welfare is an idiot, and so anyone out to be able to do it with very little training. The reality is that even after 6 months of very good training, it took me an additional 6 months of working in the field before I was not constantly having to ask people questions about how to deal with situations that are not obviously spelled in policy. It took about another year before I felt very comfortable with my knowledge of the job, and even at that, as the years went by I often learned new things that I was doing wrong for years. Aside from that, policies constantly change, because politicians and federal agencies are constantly monkeying with the policy. And so it is not likely that call centers that are planning on paying people a little bit above minimum wage are going to be able to retain the staff that will stay long enough to master all this information... and so consequently, they are giving people the run around, and very often referring them to call the local offices, that now no longer have the staff to manage their work, or even answer their phones. I have a very difficult time keeping in touch with some of my former co-workers, and I have their direct numbers. But even if they paid people enough money to stay in these call centers, they should have known it was going to take about a year or two before these new employers would have been much good.

Also, the "solution" of hiring temps to fill the jobs of HHSC eligibility workers is a joke. Temps don't stay, because they are looking for something permanent. They also do not get anything close to sufficient training, and as a result, aside from filling clerical functions, they are not that much help. Some temps come along with time, and start getting good enough to be of some help, but just about that time, they leave. The result is a lot of money wasted, and a lot of work not done.

This would all be very funny if it weren't for the fact that so many people were really suffering as a result of all this stupidity -- HHSC employees are going through hell trying to meet impossible expectations from an agency that has given them pink slips that are effective in May of 2006, and of course the people who depend on these benefits, are not only not getting benefits timely, but are having to go through all kinds of hell to try and get them, because they often have no choice but to do so.

Things will continue to fall apart rapidly in the next few months, unless some very serious and quick back-peddling begins... and not the kind were are seeing now, where they are just prolonging the agony. They need to reverse course, and start trying to rehire some of the staff that have left, and begin hiring permanent employees to replace the rest.

San Antonio Express: Troubled social services call centers on hold

Troubled social services call centers on hold

Web Posted: 04/07/2006 12:00 AM CDT
Elizabeth Allen
Express-News Staff Writer

A much-touted rollout of privately operated call centers to replace state workers who screened applicants for Medicaid, food stamp and other social service benefits has been put on hold for at least 30 days because of staffing shortages and a variety of technical problems.

In announcing the delay, Texas Health and Human Services Commission officials essentially scraped the early summer date by which applicants in San Antonio and South Texas were to have been on the system, which the state initiated because it said it would save hundreds of millions of dollars.

After the 30-day hold, the officials will take another look at the privatization schedule that would have changed Bexar County services over in June. The commission is also taking steps to slow the hemorrhaging of state workers after 2,900 got news last year that their jobs were going away this year.

It is not clear how many of those workers have actually left state employment. One union representative estimated at least one-third of the targeted state employees left their jobs.

Nor is it clear how the delay will affect the more than $600 million that the agency promised legislators it would save by privatizing those functions.

Critics of the process cheered the move.

"I think it's very good news that they are acknowledging that there are very significant problems," said Celia Hagert, an analyst with the Texas Center for Public Policy Priorities.

"Our only hope is that if they determine that more time is needed to fix those problems, they will take that time."

The new system, run by contractor Texas Access Alliance, lets people apply for benefits over the phone, online or in person. Using the new system, the state plans to replace 99 of its 310 eligibility offices with four call centers run by the contractor.

But long wait times and computer problems have plagued the pilot program in Hays and Travis Counties center, in part because of state staffing shortages related to layoffs that the Texas State Employees Union is urging the state to rescind.

Late last year, Texas Access Alliance, a private consortium anchored by Accenture, a Bermuda-based firm, also took over the Children's Health Insurance Program, which has always been contracted out.

CHIP was designed to provide basic coverage for children of families who earned too much for Medicaid but too little to afford private insurance, essentially the working poor.

While coverage has fallen by more than 200,000 statewide since the state began cutting the program and toughening eligibility requirements in 2003, the rolls have dropped by more than 20,000 since Texas Access Alliance took over.

It began operating the Travis and Hays County pilot program in January.

Health and Human Services spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said the state wants to fix two major issues: better management of high call volumes and better training.

Some people have spent as much as 20 minutes on hold and many hung up in frustration. Goodman said that wait time has been sharply reduced "but we want to get that down a little more."

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he hopes the delay is an early indication that the state will decide that privatizing benefits services is a bad idea, while Texas State Employees Union Vice President Mike Gross said the unstable climate is causing the state to lose its more experienced employees.

Gross called for the state to hold off on the layoff of the 2,900 employees who were told last fall they would not have jobs after the call centers began operating this year.

He estimated that about 1,000 state workers have already left.

Hagert agreed that the heavy turnover is causing even more headaches, but that it's too late to stop that leak.

"I'm not saying we don't support that recommendation. It just might not be a realistic one," she said. "But we certainly support the idea that it's going to take more state workers to make the system work."

Goodman said the state hasn't actually laid anyone off, but it has seen more people leave for other jobs faster than expected. The agency is taking steps to keep people in place for now, especially in the Travis-Hays counties area, because of the numbers jumping ship.

She noted the agency is now developing a retention plan that will include a bonus to state workers whose jobs were to have been eliminated.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Pope urged to shed a few more titles

Pope Urged to Ax 'Vicar of Jesus' Title

By Tom Heneghan

PARIS -- Pope Benedict XIV, who has dropped his title "Patriarch of the West" to boost ties with Orthodox Christians, should scrap more terms tagged to his name if he wants real progress, a senior Russian Orthodox bishop said.

Papal titles such as "Vicar of Jesus Christ" or "Sovereign Pontiff of the Universal Church" were "unacceptable, even scandalous" for the Orthodox, Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev said in a statement published this week on his web site.

"Only renouncing titles stressing the universal jurisdiction of the pope, and the ecclesiological doctrine hidden behind that, would be a real step on the path toward reconciliation between the Orthodox and Catholic churches," he wrote.

Hilarion, Russian Orthodox bishop of Vienna and his church's main representative in Europe, said the "Patriarch of the West" title was actually more acceptable than some others.

Benedict, who has made better relations with the Orthodox a priority of his papacy, quietly dropped "patriarch of the West" from his nine official titles early in March.

Vatican relations with the Russian church, the largest of the Orthodox churches, have been strained because the Moscow hierarchy opposes Catholic attempts to win new members there following the fall of communism in 1991.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II said last month that he hoped for a rapid resolution to the problems between the churches.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's top official for ecumenism, said neither side wanted to lure believers away from the other.

Hilarion said a statement from Kasper's office clarifying the change did not explain how it could help dialogue between the two churches split since the Great Schism of 1054.

"The Pontifical Council's communique cannot be considered an adequate response" to differences between them, he said.

The Orthodox accepted the pope as the "first among equals" in pre-schism Christianity and as the patriarch of Western Europe as opposed to other patriarchs in Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, he said.

"It is only in this form that the Orthodox could accept the primacy of the bishop of Rome if church unity between the East and the West were to be reestablished," he said.

The Orthodox, based mostly in Russia, Eastern Europe and Greece with diaspora churches around the world, reject papal authority and maintain a loose family of national churches with a spiritual leader based in Istanbul.

There are about 220 million Orthodox Christians around the world, compared with 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.

Kasper said last month that bilateral talks had improved the prospects for a meeting between Benedict and Alexy, but it was too early to speak of a time or place.

Hilarion objected to three of Benedict's eight remaining titles -- "Vicar of Jesus Christ," "Successor of the Prince of the Apostles" and "Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church" -- because the Orthodox do not believe any cleric can claim such authority.

The rest -- Bishop of Rome, Primate of Italy, Metropolitan Archbishop of the Roman Province, Sovereign of Vatican City and Servant of the Servants of God -- refer to more limited powers of the pope and do not clash with Orthodox views.