Thursday, May 25, 2006

Congressmen Attack Privatization Plan

Congressmen Attack Privatization Plan
Guillermo X. Garcia
May 25, 2006
Declaring it a failed experiment that is harming the neediest in the state, a group of Texas congressmen including Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, a San Antonio Democrat, urged state leaders Wednesday to immediately cease a plan to privatize the screening of welfare applications.
But Republican leaders, who control the Legislature and the top elected offices in the state, appeared unwilling to comply with the House Democrats' request.
Gov. Rick Perry's spokeswoman, Kathy Walt, did not directly address the congressional request, but noted that Perry has confidence in the privatizing effort and in Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins, the point man for the outsourcing plan.
"The governor certainly believes that privatization is an appropriate cost-saving approach," Walt said.
Letting private companies carry out some state functions and providing those services faster, cheaper and more efficiently has been at the heart of the effort by the Health and Human Services Commission. Two years ago, the agency embarked on an ambitious plan to eventually replace face-to-face interviews between clients and state-paid caseworkers with forms that could be filled out via the Internet or with the assistance of private employees at four call centers around the state.
Texas signed an $899 million contract with Bermuda-based Accenture LLP last year to have the company develop an "integrated eligibility system" that would quickly and accurately determine the social services for which applicants qualify.
But the program has been beset with problems. The HHSC has twice postponed expanding the system outside of a small pilot project in Austin. The contractor's employee training program has been criticized, and a massive computer foul-up has resulted from an inability of various software programs to communicate with each other.
The program's critics say the foul-ups have led to people not receiving benefits they were entitled to. Others, they say, have been improperly denied benefits because of misinformation provided by poorly trained Accenture employees.
Acknowledging earlier this week that it has paid the contractor $91 million, Hawkins rejected an additional $50 million in payments for Accenture because the contractor has not been able to do the job.
The strongly worded letter was signed by four Texas Democratic congressmen and delivered late Wednesday to Perry, Hawkins and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn.
Hawkins' spokeswoman said the commission planned to push ahead.
Strayhorn, a Republican running against Perry as an independent in November's gubernatorial election, applauded the congressmen "for getting involved in this Accenture mess."
"The governor implemented this plan in haste," Strayhorn said, terming the privatizing effort a "perfect story of wasted tax dollars, reduced access to services and profiteering at taxpayers' expense."
She has undertaken an audit and review of the Accenture contract and promised to provide answers to questions raised by state Democratic lawmakers who oppose privatization.
The state's privatizing effort "has been a total, complete failure, and the people who are losing are the needy and the taxpayers, and the people who are not (losing) are elected officials allowing this disaster to continue and the contractor," Gonzalez said in an interview.
Hawkins, who projected that the state would realize $646 million in savings over the five-year life of the contract, has twice been forced to postpone rolling out the effort statewide.
In addressing the problems, Hawkins also ordered that most of the work that Accenture was supposed to handle be instead performed by state workers, about 3,000 of whom were to have been replaced by the contractor's employees.
"People need to think in terms of the human suffering that is resulting from this truly failed effort," Gonzalez said.

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