A reputation for failure, continuum of mediocrity
We here in the Ocean State are used to dealing with the inefficiencies of government. We know that we do not receive adequate goods and services for our taxpayer dollars. We also are aware that despite having a bloated government in regard to the excessive number of state employees per capita in comparison to other states, we simultaneously have a record of failure in virtually every project that the state attempts to effectuate.
Let us remember the extravagances and overruns in budgets over the years with the construction of the Jamestown Bridge, the airport renovation, the Department of Motor Vehicles facility, and the building of the Kent County Courthouse, etc.
Likewise, we will soon have toll booths strewn around the state that the majority of Rhode Islanders resoundingly did not want, simply because the General Assembly found it impossible to shave 1% from an $8.9 billion budget for road and bridge refurbishment.
Not only are seemingly all state endeavors over-budget and late in completion, they often are dissatisfactory in longevity and durability. Just examine the expenditure on road repair, supposedly previously assured by a raise in vehicle registration and license fees. Considering the current dilapidated condition of our roadways, either the work done was not at all long-wearing or the money was diverted. Meaning the funds were sucked down the vortex into the black hole of the general fund and not applied to the tasks needed as promised.
Of course, one cannot avoid mentioning the 38 Studios debacle. Which the General Assembly through ignorance, slothfulness, indifference, or being duped by a proactive collusion of the hierarchy of the legislative body essentially voted to throw 100 million dollars of our money down the toilet.
Yes, we are all together too used to chronic governmental failure here in Little Rhody. Unfortunately, in the latest example of hapless mediocrity, the most vulnerable among us has suffered the most. The Mid-September launch of the new Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP) was once again a saddening example of Rhode Island’s consistent string of atrocious failures.
In an attempt to exculpate themselves from any blameworthiness regarding the latest debacle, Governor Gina M. Raimondo, Secretary of Health and Human Services Elizabeth Roberts, and Rhode Island Department of Human Services Director Melba Depena Affigne have tried to explain that what occurred was typical in the normal course of events in a rollout of this type. Or, they tried to say someone other than them were at fault. Or, they tried to say the federal government gave the go ahead to implement the new system prematurely. All those explanations fall short of the actual truth. And the citizens at the lowest echelon in our society have suffered from their incompetence.
The ire of complaint and the crucial need for explanation has been voiced by concerned citizens on both sides of the aisle. The initial begging question is how did this original good idea go so wrong on its way to fruition?
First and foremost, one has to ask why the Ocean State is so dysfunctional when we certainly have the manpower not to be. Topographically, we are the smallest state. Yet, in terms of population, there are four states with about the same amount of citizens. According to the United States Census Data from 2014, other states like Montana and South Dakota although servicing approximately the same populous has substantially less state employees. For instance South Dakota has 12,774 full-time employees versus Rhode Island’s 17,073 full-time employees. Thus begging the question, why are our government services so lackluster when we have so many people to get the work done?
These quantitative facts play into the UHIP dilemma. The UHIP project started in 2011 and has involved the HHS Secretary Roberts from the beginning when she was Lieutenant Governor. UHIP thus far is a $364 million project of which the Rhode Island taxpayer is responsible for $79 million and the Federal taxpayer is responsible for the remainder of the costs. Rhode Island officials have requested an additional $124 million, which would bring the total cost to a whopping $487 million through the end of 2018.
On the face of the project, the prospect would seem a fair idea. The previous computer system was antiquated and over three decades old, and the new streamlined system would supposedly require a lesser number of employees to run it. Thus, the new system would prospectively save money in the long term through efficiency. However, this has not been the case thus far. Foolishly, before the system was thoroughly “pilot tested” and “Beta-tested”, it was implemented.
Despite numerous warnings from Food and Nutrition Service (United States Department of Agriculture, FNS) Director Kurt Messner, Rhode Island Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Melba Depena Affigne decided to roll the dice with only a minor amount of testing of the system’s viability. Messner warned Affigne in a letter before the September launch. “Launching a system without having conducted a live pilot test is against the intent of the regulations and against our own best advice, and by doing so, FNS wishes DHS to know that it proceeds with the deployment of UHIP at its own risk” and “Risks include reduced program access, worker backlogs, delayed application processing and untimely benefits, over-issuances and increased payment error rates”. And that is exactly what happened. Some social services clients did not receive their benefits at all, some were overpaid, some were underpaid, some were erroneously declared dead, and some had there document footprint erased and now had to prove they existed to begin with.
Yet, Affigne defended her decision. She exclaimed she was “confident in its readiness” and said, “Based on the results of the hybrid pilot, our staff training, outreach and contingency and transition planning, we remain confident in our ability to launch the new eligibility system”. So she launched a system that was not tested thoroughly enough and rendered some of the poorest among us with no wherewithal to sustain themselves.
Despite the flurry of complaints, the adverse local news coverage, and talk radio being besieged by desperate people crying for help, state officials have attempted to rationalize. Secretary Roberts stated: “the new system is working and being used by 318 thousand Rhode Islanders”.
Governor Raimondo said, “There is no such thing as a perfect IT rollout, Apple, Microsoft, the biggest and best companies-it doesn’t exist”. Those dismissive and relatively indifferent statements were joined by this claim of exculpation by Raimondo. “I wasn’t aware of strongly worded letters (from FNS), It was not brought up to me, no”. Also, she added this justification for the mistaken launch, “CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) approved it, our main federal partner gave us the go-ahead.”
Adding to the missteps in this ludicrous scenario, just prior to the rollout, 45 HHS workers who specialize in benefits work were laid off. Now the department has hired 35 Temp workers to aid in the backlog caused by this error prone new system. Of course another question rises. With an outrageous number of state employees, why could not any qualified workers from other departments been temporarily transferred to help with the crisis so the impoverished could have perhaps received their benefits?
Many officials from both political parties want answers. House Finance Chair Marvin Abney and House Oversight Chair Patricia Serpa are demanding clearer explanations on the inadequate testing of the system before lunch, and they want to see Independent Verification Reports (IVV) to establish who is foolishly responsible for jumping the gun. House Finance Committee Member Patricia Morgan wants to know about all the hardware and software issues, and she wants to know what extra costs to the taxpayer we have endured as a result of this screw-up. GOP Chairman Brandon Bell wants to know in specific terms what value added benefit there is from the UHIP system altogether. He also asks the most obvious question of why a rollout of this magnitude was not rolled out in phases to check for bugs and other difficulties.
Since I have been a Rhode Islander for the last 37 years, I have always pondered why everything the state government tries to accomplish becomes a steaming pile of incompetence. We obviously have a lot more people to do the work than other states do per-capita. Whether it is “cooler and warmer”, building a bridge, a courthouse, or an airport terminal, or just paving over a pothole, we can not seem to solve any problem effectively. The UHIP debacle is another example of our state government’s haplessness. We Ocean State people usually take the shortfalls in stride, but when the most needy citizens are suffering because of the lackluster efforts of government this should not be tolerated.