January 30, 2009

Modernization efforts of agency encounter technology snafu

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Good ideas don’t always pan out in practice.

Modernizing some of the services rendered by the state’s Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) to improve access to benefits is one of them. The attempt at rendering better services has resulted in, at least temporarily in some counties, an inability for many people to access any benefits.

Two bills, House Bill 1691, authored by Rep. Suzanne Crouch (R-Evansville), and House Bill 1195, authored by Rep. Bill Crawford (D-Indianapolis), have been introduced to address the problem.

House Bill 1691 would prevent additional counties from moving to the new system until the Joint Commission on Medicaid Oversight has reviewed the changes and status of the counties that have already implemented the eligibility determination changes.

House Bill 1195 provides for specific measures to correct some of the problems noted in the summer study committee.

The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) supports the review of the program, and is supportive of these bills because they call attention to a real and serious problem facing the elderly and families in need.

Three programs which are affected in the modernization effort include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Food Stamps and Medicaid.

In 2007, Indiana’s FSSA signed a $1.6 billion contract with IBM Corp. and Affiliated Computer Services to implement a call system and Web program for welfare applicants.

This new system would be the entry point for applicants to access benefits. Previously, applicants had to visit a county welfare office, where they were assigned a caseworker to handle their application process through a face-to-face visit.

Debbie Schmidt, executive director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, said that their clients are experiencing a myriad of problems with the new system.

“We’re seeing an increase in need caused by rising utility bills, unemployment, the mortgage crisis and the downturn of the economy in general,” Schmidt said.

This increase in need, coupled with a new system which is complicated for applicants and Catholic Charities staff to navigate, has compounded the problem for those who are served by Catholic Charities.

“Many of our clients can’t get access or maintain their benefits,” Schmidt said. “In general, the poor do not have home computers, Internet access or even phone service.

“These are obstacles to gaining access,” she said. “The demand for computers at the library has increased significantly as this is also the way many go to apply for unemployment benefits.”

Lisa M. Young, who works with Schmidt as assistant director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, said “the new system is difficult to navigate.”

Lost paperwork, documents of one applicant being placed in another applicant’s file causing denial or delay of benefits for both applicants, and technology failure from unscanned signatures on the receiving end to the Web page being down for days highlight some of the problems encountered by those needing help. Not only is the Catholic Charities’ staff hearing complaints about these problems, they also are experiencing them firsthand as they work with their clients to help them access state benefits.

Corina Hurtado of Hispanic Health Advocate, a program of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, has experienced difficulties from document management errors made that result in delayed or denial of benefits to her clients.

“The application process is complicated,” Hurtado said. “There’s really no easy way an applicant can confirm their application was completed properly or even received. The person thinks they’ve applied when in reality they haven’t.”

Theresa Teders, community services supervisor for Brief and Emergencies Services, a program for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, said she has had clients who came to her very upset because their Medicaid insurance card was rejected when they went to pick up a prescription at their local pharmacy.

Under the previous system, emergency assistance for food stamps would be expedited with a wait time of seven to 10 days, said Tenders, but now the wait averages about 45 days.

John C. Etling, agency director of Catholic Charities Terre Haute, said he is also seeing longer delays for those being served in his area.

“I’ve seen a delay in services [of] 30, 60 or even 90 days,” he said.

“There’s a disconnect somewhere in the process,” Etling said. “There’s one company that has an expertise in handling calls, another with an expertise in document collection and another that handles the document verification. The problem is there isn’t one company handling it all.”

Both bills, House Bill 1691 and House Bill 1195, have been assigned to the House Public Health Committee.

(Bridget Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

Local site Links: