Friday, February 08, 2008

Food stamp proposal would force Texas shift

Food stamp proposal would force Texas shift (my comments in red)

By JASON EMBRY, CORRIE MacLAGGANWednesday, February 06, 2008

WASHINGTON — Texas would have to rework its plans to privatize food stamp enrollment under a proposal that is moving through Congress.

Language in a major farm bill approved by the House would bar states from allowing employees of private firms to interact with people who are applying for food stamps or to decide someone's eligibility for the program.

The author of that language, Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., said it was inspired in part by problems in Texas, where some eligible families were improperly denied food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance during a 2006 privatization test in the Austin area.

"The disastrous attempt to privatize food stamps in Texas was a large reason behind my anti-privatization provision in the House farm bill," Baca said. "The Texas project was a complete fiasco."

Although Texas canceled what was originally a five-year, $899 million contract with Accenture LLP to run call centers enrolling people in services, the state did not abandon its plans for private call centers. Texas Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins has said privatization will save the state money and give Texans more ways to apply for services: by phone and online instead of just in person.

Here we go AGAIN with the "ways" to apply for benefits line. Hawkins loves it, doesn't he? Guess what? You can apply ONLINE OR BY PHONE EVERYDAY- but if your case either never gets worked, gets lost in the shuffle, takes 45 days to get an APPOINTMENT (like in ART), then applying "by phone" suddenly isn't so convenient.

A draft request for proposal that the state released in November would allow for private companies to enroll clients in food stamps in the future. The Baca proposal "would mean a change in our plan for food stamps," said Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. "It does reduce the states' flexibility — and does potentially increase the cost — but we're certainly prepared to comply with whatever goes through."

Under Texas' new plan, state workers would continue to have the final say on who is eligible for food stamps, but employees of a private company would answer applicants' questions about the status of their case, Goodman said. That is the sort of contact Baca's proposal would prohibit.

A private company — Maximus Inc., a former subcontractor of Accenture — now answers food stamp application questions at call centers in Midland and Athens. Maximus handles applications for about 275,000 of the state's 2.35 million food stamp recipients, Goodman said. Most of the applications Maximus handles come from Central Texas.

And alot of the "questions" that the vendor answers for clients are answered WRONG. I cannot tell you HOW MANY CLIENTS end up the the local offices that have been told something totally completely wrong. I've SEEN some of the case comments left by TAA (Maximus? Whoever)- and let me tell you, state employees are having to go through alot of hell calming down clients who were told one thing, but policy states something else. Example: Client calls 2-1-1 to see if they can have an appointment sooner (let's say they are in ART, and right now- ART is scheduling appointments well into MARCH already)....2-1-1 tells the client to just go into the local office and apply for EMERGENCY food stamps if they want to be seen sooner. No, this is NOT correct. Clients LOSE benefits if they do this. I've seen more than I can post on this blog. But beleive me, clients get a much bigger RUN AROUND through the VENDOR (who do NOT know policy) then they EVER did in the local office.

She said the legislation is so broadly written that it may stop Texas' use of private workers to scan in documents and process mail.

The provision also may keep states from relying on private companies — or even nonprofits — to help prevent fraud, connect food stamp recipients with jobs or conduct nutrition education programs, said Larry Goolsby, director of legislative affairs for the American Public Human Services Association, a nonprofit organization of state agencies.

"There are many, many very innocent and helpful activities like that that this law would potentially bring to a complete halt," he said. The provision seems "to be very ill conceived to address what some are worried about going on in one or two states and in fact (would) have huge consequences for many, many states."

The House and Senate have each passed separate versions of the farm bill, but a conference committee that will work out a final bill has not yet been named. The Senate version does not include the privatization ban, but it calls for greater federal oversight when states make major changes to their programs, such as the push for call centers.

"I am committed to ensuring the anti-privatization provision stays in the final version of the farm bill," Baca said. "If we open the door for the privatization of food stamp administration, we risk putting sensitive information about millions of families into the hands of private companies, with no way to monitor how this data will be handled or protected."

But Mary Katherine Stout, vice president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which supports limited government, said privatization has a long history of improving performance and that private companies have shown they can handle sensitive information. She said Texas' call center pilot demonstrated the importance of testing an ambitious effort. After initial problems — such as long hold times and call center representatives who couldn't answer applicants' questions — Accenture's performance improved, she said.

Ahh, of course Mary Katherine Stout would say that all these issues are improved. She's not a client having to navigate it either. She has no idea.

"It would be unfortunate to see the federal government close this option to Texas," Stout said.
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, called Baca's proposal an attempt to please public-employee unions.

Please. Appease the unions? How about the employees? You know, the ONES ACTUALLY DOING THE WORK? What do you think the union is made of? Us. We are the ones who are completely overwhelmed. Totally without a doubt overwhelmed.

Privatization was a bad idea from the start. Field staff called it a long time ago. The years of service/knowledge that the state has lost in employees is staggering. No one has ever listened to US.

"Texas might have bitten off more than they could chew," Conaway said. "But to categorically eliminate the opportunity for outside help — helping government be more nimble and quicker and less expensive and more efficient — to me is just bad public policy."

But Celia Hagert of the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for more spending on programs that aim to help low-income families, said states can still modernize their programs using public workers.

You know, the public workers in Texas are the ones who previously had the General Fund in Texas benefit in enhanced funding. Sure- change can be good. But, we had a fairly decent oiled machine across the state (the big cities- Houston, Austin, Dallas- have always and will always have a high turnover rate due to the opportunities in those places). We had tenured staff. We had good training. Not just initial training- we had supplemental trainings all the time that made workers better at their jobs. We had those who actually wanted to and planned to retire from the State. Not so much anymore.

"In general," Hagert said, "these types of functions are better performed by trained eligibility workers who don't have a conflict of interest, for whom the bottom line is making sure clients get benefits on time and that benefits are delivered accurately, and not the profit of their company."



Anonymous said...

Let's see. The state was having problems because people were applying for emergency benefits, were found to be TIERS, were told to go home and wait for a call in two hours, weren't being called in that time frame, and were complaining. The powers that be "requested" that each supervisor from our region get a "volunteer" from each unit to go to TIERS training (two whole weeks worth) on the pretense of having someone available in each office to interview clients for emergency services (face to face mind you.) Now, the first wave of these trainees have been sent to Austin to help with the problems there, leaving the poor people applying for benefits in the same quandry, leaving the workers in the offices another worker short and hence worse off than before, as they are working shorthanded anyway, and Austin not much better off as the workers that they got are basically fresh out of training...

Anonymous said...

Local offices are now responsible for doing ALL TIERS expedites and Pregnancy Medicaids. The local offices not in Pilot area (Austin) have 1 maybe 2 TIERS trained workers who are having to figure out how to do THEIR normal everyday job AND the TIERS expedites and medicaids- there aren't enough people in the field who can take this on. Something gives, always. In this case, yes- they are not being called in 2 hours, and sometimes 2 days. Because in TIERS it takes FOREVER to do an interview that would take about 30 minutes TOPS in SAVERR. Not so in TIERS. Clients have gotten the shaft with TIERS since DAY ONE. Local field offices are held accountable when they can't figure out a way to see so many TIERS clients. Why are there so many? Because we are backdooring everyone INTO tiers through WHP. It's an underhanded rollout.