Tuesday, May 16, 2006

John Young: Texas's privatization disaster

(Got this via email today....good article)
John Young: Texas's privatization disaster
Sunday, May 14, 2006
John Young
AUSTIN — It’s one of Texas’ biggest stories in years. Too bad few Texans know about it.
It’s the great Texas Push-Button Bureaucracy-Eliminating Paper-Pusher Massacre (TPBBEPPM). I made that name up but not the debacle that state policymakers now face. It’s a mess they’re hoping will slide right past your nose.
It came with an understated announcement last week: that 1,000 employees that the Texas Commission on Health and Human Services said it wouldn’t need are needed still.
The state was prepared to send the jobs through a corporate shredder. It was part of a massive privatized effort to change how Texas grants food stamps, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
Texans were told in 2003 that privatization of social services not only would save taxpayers money but serve more needy people.
This came under a massive restructuring of social services and a creature called TIERS — Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System.
The concept dates back to the ’90s and George Bush’s time in the governor’s mansion. The objective: to hand state services en masse to private contractors. They would use computers and distant call centers to do the jobs that a community-based state workforce has done in eligibility centers around Texas.
TIERS was derailed for a while in part by the Clinton administration, which was skeptical that it would get the job done. Most of these are federal benefits after all.
In 2003, no such obstacle remained. Bush was where Clinton had been. And the GOP controlled Texas government. Promising big savings to taxpayers, lawmakers went whole hog on privatization.
The big winner from all of this was Bermuda-based Accenture LLP.
Having won contracts elsewhere, including a voter-purge list in Florida used in the 2000 presidential elections, Accenture led a consortium which won an $899 million contract to replace Texas’ system of determining eligibility for state services.
Last week, after massive backlogs and interminable waits for people needing help at pilot sites in Travis and Hays counties, state Health and Human Service Commissioner Albert Hawkins told Accenture to clean up its act. Meanwhile, affected eligibility centers were returning to pre-Accenture procedures. Under privatization, applications routed through a clearinghouse in Midland were backing things up like hair down a drain.
The state advised 2,000 state eligibility workers that their jobs either were going away or they would need to reapply, in many cases requiring them to relocate.
Now, with all the delays, and with some applications that appeared to vanish after reaching Midland, the state has said “Not so fast” to at least 1,000 of the previously unneeded employees.
We all like to deride paper pushers and bureaucracy, but when it comes to administering state services, paper-pushing is what it takes — or at least sufficient numbers of human hands to keep things straight.
This state realization is too late for many valued workers. Seeing the writing on the wall, and seeing morale and working conditions decline, they quit. One Austin eligibility office lost a third of its employees to resignations.
Now the state is wishing they had stayed.
Expect this to be an issue in the 2006 governor’s race. It should be.
State comptroller and gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn, announcing an audit of the Accenture contract, called it “the perfect storm of wasted tax dollars, reduced access to services for our most vulnerable Texans and profiteering at the expense of our Texas taxpayers.”
Gov. Rick Perry, she said, “implemented this plan in haste. He fired state employees before he knew if the company could handle their jobs.”
Whatever you do, Governor, don’t ask Donald Rumsfeld for advice.
In some ways, this mess has the look of another rush-into-the-fray, go-with-your-gut, on-the-cheap endeavor: like Operation Iraqi Freedom.
How appealing it is to put our trust in a hunch and think that government can do something massive and fundamental with minimal investment, particularly of the human kind.
Governing — whether administering food stamps in Texas or remaking a war-shattered country — is a lot more complicated than awarding bids.

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