The Record: Delay for Food Aid Editotial

The Record Editorial

The state had high hopes when it contracted with Hewlett-Packard to update its antiquated computer system for processing Medicaid and food stamp benefits. A centralized computer network would increase efficiency for social service agencies and speed up the process for applicants. But after five years, there's no start date in sight

The state had high hopes when it contracted with Hewlett-Packard to update its antiquated computer system for processing Medicaid and food stamp benefits. A centralized computer network would increase efficiency for social service agencies and speed up the process for applicants. But after five years, there's no start date in sight.

Legislators want answers, but officials have not been very forthcoming. They won't comment since the state is in the process of terminating the contract. While it's good the state is moving on from this mess, it also means residents who are in desperate need of help to get by will continue to face long wait times for the foreseeable future. 

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, said her Human Services Committee appreciates the attempt to implement this new system, "however something clearly went wrong." 

That is an understatement. A state auditor outlined issues with the delay in implementing the Consolidated Assistance Support System at an Assembly Human Services hearing last week. It put a big part of the blame on the contract and said this has caused backlogs for applicants being entered into the system. There are also concerns that federal and state money was wasted on this program.

According to the auditor's report, the state's Medicaid computers don't communicate directly with the different county welfare agencies that determine eligibility and enroll applicants. Agencies now have to enter the same client information into multiple systems. The new program would let the agencies enter clients' information once and then check their eligibility in all the assistance programs.

Staff Writer Dustin Racioppi reported that Bergen and Passaic counties are among the top 10 in the state identified by the Human Services Department "to be of most concern" because of application backlogs for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. Meanwhile, Bergen County alone had 2,661 Medicaid application cases backlogged.

"It's creating havoc with lives," Huttle said. "When you're spending these kinds of dollars on a computer system, you'd think it'd be up and running without glitches."

Racioppi reported that the state and federal government have spent about $118 million on this so far. That number could go even higher, but there's still no answer when or if the computer system will be ready for use. 

The auditor's report said this project was originally scheduled to be completed by this past summer, but there were a number of changes to the deadlines as the delays kept coming. While some of those issues were caused by the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, "others appear to be the direct result of poor performance by HP and management oversight."

The report listed issues like "absentee management in key positions and unresolved technical problems."

Hopefully the state will se-cure beneficial terms for ending the contract with Hewlett-Packard. If this project continues to be delayed or never comes to fruition, then the state could lose some of the federal fund-ing.

Too much public money has been wasted. But beyond that is the tragedy of the thousands of residents still waiting for the help they desperately need.