Myriad problems with a new computer system that Colorado officials insisted be implemented two weeks ago is expected to deny or delay everything from food stamps to Medicaid for tens of thousands of county residents.
"I'm definitely worried," said Barbara J. Drake, director of the El Paso County Department of Human Services.
But she wasn't at all surprised.
Several counties that participated in a test of the new Colorado Benefits Management System had warned for months of large-scale problems that could take months to resolve, Drake said.
Sue Cobb, a spokeswoman for Denver Human Services, acknowledged concerns.
"We are talking with the state about them," she said.
State officials adamantly defend their decision to switch on the $199-million system that in 1995 was conceived as a one-stop shop for benefits. Given the massive undertaking of converting all the state's welfare cases to the new system, officials anticipated they would encounter some problems, said Liz McDonough, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Human Services.
"We didn't bring this on not expecting issues," she said.
Yet McDonough couldn't say how widespread the problems were, how long glitches would linger or how many people would be adversely affected.
The full scope of the problem probably won't be realized until October, when the system is scheduled to cut its first checks.
"Imagine that," said Mike Pagel sarcastically as he waited several hours in the department's Colorado Springs headquarters to speak about his benefits, which he has struggled to expand.
The 49-year-old homeless man said people could wind up pounding on doors asking what happened to their benefits. The frustrating situation, he added, is just another reason to believe the state doesn't want to pay him anything at all.
The new Colorado Benefits Management System does away with the combination of paper and computers previously used to qualify recipients for separate benefits. In the new system, workers enter up to 120 computer screens' worth of information for entire families, telling people about all the benefits they can receive.
Since the new system was implemented, productivity has hit new lows in the department. For every 100 cases the county processed before the new system came on line, the county processes less than 10 now, Drake said. Part of the reason is that the software installed by contractor Electronic Data Systems Inc. moves at a snail's pace, a situation that is contributing to the county's growing backlog. New applicants could face waits of roughly one month before meeting a caseworker to formally apply for benefits.
The roughly $250,000 in state funds recently given to the county by the state to help rectify problems created by the new system isn't expected to go far, Drake said.
For instance, it won't necessarily prevent people from getting letters wrongly stating they were cut from programs, she said.
For Rita Richard, a 48-year-old Security resident who receives $141 in food stamps a month, the potential computer glitch could result in her going hungry. She said she barely scrapes by after she lost her job following a leg injury.
"I don't think there's a good excuse for telling people they can't get the benefits they need if they are entitled to them," she said.
-- Michael de Yoanna
Having problems with benefits?
Call the El Paso County Department of Human Services, 444-5060.