Monday, July 17, 2006

Bell joins welfare screener critics The Democratic governor hopeful urges HHS to drop privatization deal, keep jobs in Texas

Clay Robison
Houston Chronicle
AUSTIN - Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Bell said Friday the state should cancel an $899 million human services privatization contract that also has come under fire from Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and many legislators.
"It's every bit as nightmarish as the reports indicate," Bell said of the contract awarded to Accenture LLP for screening applicants for public assistance programs.
The Bermuda-based company, which manages a consortium of subcontractors called Texas Access Alliance, has been attacked by social services advocates, who say low-income Texans are losing benefits because of inadequate staffing and training at private call centers.
The contract is part of a massive reorganization of health and human services agencies ordered by the Legislature in 2003 in an effort to streamline the delivery of public services and reduce costs.
HHS leader still backs plan
Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins, an appointee of Gov. Rick Perry, isn't backing down from the contract, and neither is Perry.
Hawkins, however, has slowed down the privatization effort to try to address complaints about a call center pilot program, including lost or backlogged applications, long wait times on phone lines and eligible recipients being cut from services.
The commissioner has canceled plans to lay off hundreds of state workers who were to have been replaced by contract employees.
Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt has said the governor is unhappy with the privatization problems but has "utmost confidence that Commissioner Hawkins will address the issues."
Earlier this week, 60 members of the Texas House, 12 Republicans and 48 Democrats, called for the state to cancel the Accenture contract and use the money to "rebuild a community-based system that works."
But 30 other legislators, all Republicans, urged Hawkins to continue the transition to privatization.
Strayhorn, running for governor as an independent, announced plans two months ago to investigate the contract. Spokesman Mark Sanders said Friday that Strayhorn didn't want to comment on whether the contract should be canceled until after the investigation has been completed.
"It's a huge contract with huge problems," Sanders said.
Strayhorn also targeted
Bell has criticized Strayhorn for once advocating privatization of some health and human services programs.
Sanders said the privatization approved by the Legislature and the Health and Human Services Commission was broader than the comptroller had recommended as a cost-cutting measure in 2003.
Bell said screening of public assistance applicants should be handled by state employees.
Spokeswoman Jill Angelo said earlier this week that Texas Access Alliance was working with the state and had made "significant progress over the past several months to improve performance."

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