Texas set to integrate enrollment online to speed benefits processing

But Colorado's experience raises a warning flag

Texas has been laying the groundwork to move to an integrated Web enrollment system for signing residents up for welfare benefits.

The state uses several enrollment systems, forcing applicants to visit different offices to register for benefits. The systems were 'built in the 1960s and 1970s and [don't] serve the best interest of consumers or the health and human services system today,' said Jennifer Harris, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Not only are the systems cumbersome, they also are costly. Harris said Texas spends more than $700 million annually to determine whether applicants qualify for benefits such Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. 'That's more than twice the amount paid out in TANF benefits each year,' she said.

Not so simple

By implementing the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System, Harris said the state expects to save at least $389 million over the next five years, not including further savings from streamlining central office administration, IT support and other functions.

But such consolidation projects aren't simple. Colorado has seen enrollment problems with a similar integration effort lead to significant delays in applicants receiving benefits.

State officials hailed the $200 million Colorado Benefits Management System as a major step in streamlining enrollment for six programs including food stamps, housing assistance, employment help and Medicaid.

But large backlogs in transferring existing clients and delays in enrolling new ones have kept some from receiving benefits. Last month, the Agriculture Department warned Colorado that its efforts to fix problems in providing food stamps have been insufficient.

Currently, 35,000 cases are backlogged.

Implementation of CBMS originally was planned for July 2003, but the state delayed rollout first to April of this year, then to August and finally to September. All 64 of Colorado's counties had asked Gov. Bill Owens in August to delay the start-up, arguing that the system was not ready for prime time and too few caseworkers had been trained to use it.

Liz McDonough, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Human Services Department, said state agencies felt CBMS had been fine-tuned as much as possible in development, and it could only be moved to the next level by bringing it online.

The governor appointed a task force to track the progress of CBMS, and counties received state funds to hire additional workers. But a lawsuit by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, an advocacy group for beneficiaries hurt by the problems, is set for a hearing in early December.

'Thousands of people are going hungry or are depending on friends to eat because they can't get their claims processed,'

Ed Kahn, special counsel for the advocacygroup, told the Denver Post. 'It's a disaster.'
Harris said she believes Texas' experience will be different than Colorado's.

'It does appear that it might be an apples-to-oranges comparison,' she said. 'Texas' health and human services benefits systems are administered and operated by the state, as opposed to individual counties in Colorado using a state-developed platform or system.'

Texas began a pilot in mid-2003 to enroll about 6,000 applicants at two locations and determine their eligibility. The pilots have functioned well, and the state plans to roll the system out for full operation by April 30.

The state released a request in July for proposals to outsource work by call centers supporting the enrollment program. Four companies submitted proposals. A selection date has not been decided on, Harris said.

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