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The past four months have been rough for Montana public assistance workers and many of their clients.

The November launch of a new computer system that replaced a failing, 20-year-old main frame system and integrated four major programs for needy Montanans created problems statewide. Some Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program enrollees complained that they couldn’t access their benefits. Eligibility workers ran into difficulties transferring existing cases from the old system to the new. Staff calls to the computer contractor’s help desk soared as did client calls the 40 field offices. To better handle the overwhelming number of calls, the Helena office set up a toll-free line for clients. Division supervisors are triaging calls and working cases to resolve problems.

Increased demand

Years in the planning, the system was changed over as the division was still dealing with a recessionary surge in assistance applications. The number of applications is 48 percent higher than in 2008, but there has been no increase in staff and turnover has been high.

Concern about the situation prompted lawmakers on the Joint Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee to convene a stakeholders meeting on Feb. 7 to hear from field office workers and other interested citizens.

Progress has been made in the past six weeks, according to Jamie Palagi, administrator of the Human and Community Services Division at the Department of Public Health and Human Services in Helena.

The number of client hotline calls has decreased, but the division is still getting about 24 per day, Palagi said this week.

The old computer system had failures at about the same rate as the new system, but different failures, according to Richard Opper, who started as DPHHS director on Jan. 1. The old system was on the verge of crashing, he said.

Ron Baldwin, the state’s chief information officer, reported frequently to lawmakers on the status of the CHIMES-EA system.

“There’s been significant oversight of the system, its development and implementation,” Baldwin told The Gazette this week. The federal agencies that paid most of the system costs and provide most program funding set standards for the system. The state hired an independent quality assurance contractor to monitor the project.

“Brand new client applications pretty much flew through the system,” Baldwin said. “Old cases had problems and multiple program cases had problems.”

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Baldwin started out on the project two years ago as the chief information officer for DPHHS. Now, as head of the information division at the Department of Administration, he is determined to make the system work for the people of Montana.

56,000 cases transfers

The changeover involved transferring 56,000 existing cases covering more than 100,000 Montanans to the new system, Baldwin said. As of this week, 80 percent of the old files have been fully converted and are working in the new system.

The system contractor, Deloitte, provides a help desk for state staff. In January, the help desk had a backlog of 1,000 staff requests. That number is down to 500 and Baldwin expects it will drop below 200 within a couple of months. The contractor is working on quicker turnaround and is clearing up some problems immediately, but others take days to fix.

Baldwin and Palagi commended the hard work of staff dealing with a new computer system on top of an already-heavy workload.

“The system is getting fixed; the system is getting stabilized; there has been significant progress,” Baldwin said this week.

Vulnerable clients

The urgency of fixing these computer problems is the vulnerability of the Montanans needing the services. Medicaid recipients are low-income children, pregnant women, disabled individuals and elderly folks, many of them living in nursing homes. SNAP allows thousands of Montanans to get enough groceries to last through the month.

The concerted effort on CHIMES-EA must continue at full speed until every aspect of the system is up to speed. Interim legislative oversight will be needed.

Meanwhile, folks who have questions or problems with Medicaid, SNAP, Healthy Montana Kids or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families can call the toll-free hotline at 855-415-5558. Messages will be answered by staff member committed to solving the caller’s problem, Palagi said.

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