State computer gaffes put welfare system in crisis
The new $199 million state computer system that determines eligibility for food stamps, pensions, Medicaid and other social services for hundreds of thousands of people has run into a host of problems over the past three weeks.The Colorado Benefits Management System went online Sept. 1, even though officials from all 64 counties asked Gov. Bill Owens to delay it. Human services directors say thousands of poor people will go hungry or lose their homes in the next few weeks if counties are not allowed to temporarily use the old system of generating benefits.In Leadville, social workers are handing out Safeway coupons to clients who can’t get food stamps. Denver social workers are sending people to food banks and 22,000 people who care for their grandchildren may not get their checks Oct. 1. In Jefferson County, one woman is hoping her insulin lasts until Medicaid benefit problems get ironed out.”Real people absolutely are being hurt,” said Roxane White, manager of Human Services in Denver. “The changes the governor’s office is recommending aren’t going to be enough to get benefits to desperately needy people.”Colorado Counties Inc., representing the state’s counties, asked Owens this week for a meeting on what it says is a crisis. Owens is studying the problems and will respond by early next week, spokesman Dan Hopkins said.The computer system is already the subject of a lawsuit in Denver district court that contends it should be taken down because it has so many technical glitches that thousands of welfare recipients will not receive benefits in October.Attorneys for the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, which filed the suit, were to present their case Friday. The state welfare department will offer its defense Monday, though an attorney for the agency said reverting to the old system would take as long as seven days.”It will harm the plaintiffs (recipients) even more if we take it down,” Assistant Attorney General Laurie Schoder said.The computer system, which replaced software packages called Legacy, was supposed to streamline the process welfare recipients use to apply for benefits. But thousands of computer records did not transfer properly to CBMS, and workers sometimes need hours to enter information for a new case.In El Paso County alone, about 1,800 applications for new benefits have not been processed. Workers have reviewed less than 5 percent of the county’s 35,000 welfare cases to determine if they were transferred properly.”My staff is just fried,” added Tom Pappin, Mesa County Human Services executive director. He said caseworkers have had to step in for families facing eviction and negotiate for more time with their landlords.In Denver, White said there are 2,500 backlogged food stamp applications. “There’s no hope of catching up. Every day we fall farther behind,” White said.Under the old system, it took 25 minutes to determine a family’s eligibility for food stamps or Temporary Aid to Needy Families, she said. The CBMS system often freezes for 25 minutes between one screen and the next – and there are 17 screens to fill out for each benefit program.State officials say they know the system is flawed.”We are aware that response time in the new system is an issue,” said Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the state human services department. “We’ve got about 200 people working virtually around the clock” to make it better.Brenda Rivera of Lakewood, 43 and too sick to hold a job, said she counts on $141 a month in food stamps. This month, the new computer system won’t accept her case.”If I don’t have food stamps, I’m at the food bank, where I get bread, a few cans of corn and some juice,” she said.At her home in Lakewood, Margie Heredia sized up her lone bottle of insulin and wondered if she will end up borrowing the drug from her sister, also a diabetic. Since 1999, Medicaid has paid for her medications.Jefferson County caseworker Michelle Jaramillo said she wept on the way home last week after seeing two of her clients standing on the corner of a busy intersection.”I didn’t even know what to say to them,” Jaramillo said. “I know they’re not starving because they have family in Colorado that wouldn’t let that happen to them. But I’m supposed to be helping them, too.”Lawmakers say they have no intention of going back to the previous system.”CBMS is got going to go away. It’s here to stay,” Sen. Dave Owen, R-Greeley, said during a Joint Budget Committee briefing. He said the government paid for much of the system,”If we screw up the system, we’ll owe the federal government $180 million, which we don’t have,” he said.
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