Friday, March 16, 2007

Human Services chief defends failed contract

AUSTIN — Lawmakers had some tough questions for the state's health and human services chief on Thursday about his decision to sever ties with a contractor hired to help make it easier for needy Texans to receive public benefits.
Members of the House human services committee wanted to know what went wrong with the state's $899 million contract with the Texas Access Alliance, a group of companies led by Bermuda-based Accenture LLP.
Albert Hawkins, head of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, announced Tuesday the agency was cutting ties with the contractor after efforts to re-negotiate the troubled contract failed.
"I've been frustrated to hear Accenture's bad and I'll agree Accenture was bad," said Rep. Patrick Rose, the committee's chairman. "But then what comes after Accenture's bad has been: 'But everything's fine.' I don't think our contracting quality control is fine."
Hawkins defended the 2005 contract, saying it included strong performance measures that let the state hold Accenture accountable for technical and operational problems that arose over the past 14 months.
The Texas Access Alliance was hired to help run a new state computer system that would let people apply for benefits such as food stamps or Medicaid over the phone, online or in person.
The project debuted in Travis and Hays counties in early 2006 and was supposed to be implemented in all 254 Texas counties by the end of the year. But technical and operational problems forced Hawkins to indefinitely delay the rollout last spring.
Problems also cropped up when the Texas Access Alliance took over processing applications for the Children's Health Insurance Program, the state's low-cost health insurance program for the children of the working poor.
The problems were so serious that Hawkins announced in December he was slashing the contract by more than $350 million and curtailing the responsibilities given to the group's employees.
But the state and company couldn't agree on the terms of the new contract, he said.
The state plans to sign short-term contracts with Accenture subcontractors to do some of the work over the next two months. Meanwhile, officials will decide what jobs should be done by state workers and what jobs can be outsourced.
Rose, a Democrat from Dripping Springs, said his committee wants to be closely involved in that process. He asked Hawkins to give them a list of lessons learned from the contract's failures and regular updates on decisions about the project's future.
"I think it would be a mistake for us to think that the Legislature doesn't need a larger role in monitoring and overseeing and maintaining quality control over the process," he said.

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