Saturday, July 12, 2008

Texas' new eligibility system to take on Medicaid, food stamp recipients

01:26 AM CDT on Saturday, July 12, 2008
By ROBERT T. GARRETT / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – State social services officials now plan to switch 1 million or more needy people in the next year to a different application process for benefits, including Medicaid and food stamps.

The state says it intends to shift 953,000 elderly and disabled Medicaid patients into its problem-plagued "integrated eligibility" system by September 2009 – on top of its previously stated goal of moving in 288,000 more food stamp recipients by August 2009.

The state's decision, tucked into an advance copy of Health and Human Services Commission chief Albert Hawkins' planned testimony to a legislative panel next week, caught advocates for the poor, state employee groups, and a veteran Democratic lawmaker by surprise Friday.

They expressed alarm that Mr. Hawkins would so greatly accelerate the rollout of TIERS – the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System – to aid recipients statewide.

"I'm concerned that the commission is going to take one of the most vulnerable populations, the elderly and disabled, and convert these extremely complicated cases into TIERS so quickly," said Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin. He said the Medicaid recipients are "most likely to have problems" and there could be "dire consequences."

The Texas State Employees Union, which has said an old mainframe-based system works much better than TIERS, denounced the plan.

"It borders on irresponsible behavior," said union spokesman Will Rogers. "They haven't worked out all the bugs with TIERS. You're playing with people's lives by doing that."

Mr. Hawkins has said the mainframe computer used for Texas benefit applications is one of only seven of its type left in existence. The old approach is outmoded and costly, while TIERS is being improved, he has said.

Commission spokesman Geoff Wool, when asked whether the state was expanding TIERS too fast, said: "This proposal reflects a measured approach. We're going to monitor very closely the benchmarks that have been established and if there are indications of problems, we'll adjust the rollout."

He referred to measures, such as reduced caseloads and caller hold times, that the state plans to use to determine if the 331 eligibility field offices can be switched to the Web-based TIERS software technology. Only six, all in the Austin area, have been fully converted.

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