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Publish Date: 5/28/2005

Lawmaker to tackle welfare computers


DENVER — A veteran state lawmaker is resigning from his House seat to take charge of the state’s problem-plagued centralized computer welfare system.

Gov. Bill Owens announced Friday that Evergreen Republican Rep. John Witwer, a retired physician, will oversee the Colorado Benefits Management System.

Establishing such a post was the top recommendation from Deloitte Consulting LLP, a firm the state retained in March to analyze the $200 million welfare benefits system that went online Sept. 1.

The Deloitte report, released Friday, contained nearly 100 recommendations, including that the state “establish a CBMS program management czar” who will report to a nine-member oversight panel that Owens also announced Friday.

If the state follows the Deloitte team’s recommendations, Witwer, who starts his new $110,000-a-year job June 1, will be responsible for day-to-day CBMS operations, including system enhancements, testing, training, communications and end-user support.

The end users are primarily county social services staffs who have struggled to use the new computer system. The system was designed to determine eligibility and issue benefits to Coloradans eligible for 36 government-subsidized medical, food and public-assistance programs.

Those programs distribute more than $2 billion in benefits annually and serve somewhere between 380,000 and 600,000 clients, officials said.

Deloitte, which is being paid up to $365,000 for its work, also recommended the state create an ongoing training program for county staffs and improve communication between counties and the CBMS project-management team.

Witwer, a former member of the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, said Friday that his primary goal will be to make sure CBMS lives up to its intended function of providing “timely and accurate” public assistance.

“There are Coloradans who qualify for but are not receiving medical care, food stamps and other state programs,” Democratic Sen. Bob Hagedorn, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said in a statement. “The technical defects are creating serious life crises for people throughout the state.”

He said “elderly and disabled people are not receiving life-saving drugs. Emergency rooms are inundated by people who cannot pay, increasing medical costs for everyone.

“Food shelves have been emptied,” Hagedorn added. “Charities have been overwhelmed by the needs of those who should otherwise be receiving assistance from these various programs.”

Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Jefferson County, said the Deloitte report made it “pretty graphically clear that there’s no confidence in the system now.”

She said Witwer “has his work cut out for him.”

House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, called Deloitte’s analysis “fairly devastating” and he expressed concerns that the 12 to 18 months the consultants suggested for implementing the recommendations is not enough time to resolve the problems.

Whatever state officials decide, they need to improve the process of approving applications for aid as soon as possible, Boulder County Social Services director Paula McKey said Friday.

“I’m in support of anything that helps us meet that goal,” she said.

According to McKey, only a third of the 1,122 applications submitted to the county in September, the first month CBMS was used, were processed on time.

Medicaid providers are still struggling with applications, and have trouble accurately determining eligibility of potential patients, she said.

Times-Call staff writer Brad Turner contributed to this report.

John Fryar can be reached by e-mail at jfryar@times-call.com.

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