April 23, 2008
Twelve-month re-ups the hard way

Last year, the Lege passed HB109, which restored some of the families that had been cut from CHIP back to the program. Despite some fierce resistance from various Republicans, it reinstated a 12-month period for enrollment; the 6-month period that it replaced was a major cause for eligible families being dropped from the rolls, as the process is onerous and easy to mess up.

Unfortunately, the same 12-month period wasn't granted for food stamp recipients. But in a rather ironic turn of events, the massive problems with the new eligibility software that the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) uses, that 12-month period was imposed out of necessity.

Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman for the state Health and Human Services Commission, said nearly 900,000 needy families will have to be interviewed only once every 12 months, starting in June.

"We needed to catch that breather," Ms. Goodman said.

She said relieving state workers of interview duties will help them catch up on a backlog of food stamp applications.

Nutrition policy expert Celia Hagert of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low-income Texans, applauded the state's move.

"They found a solution that works for everybody," Ms. Hagert said.

The state has been scrambling to rebuild its eligibility-screening workforce and improve performance at four privately run call centers after the disastrous 2006 launch of a partly privatized system of social program signups.

Last year, problems escalated again after the commission ordered that a troubled computer system known as TIERS, for Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System, handle tens of thousands of low-income women's applications for free pap smears and contraceptives.

Women who had family members on welfare or Medicaid complained that the relatives' cases also were dragged into TIERS. The Web-based system is unpopular with many state employees who say it's cumbersome. The state defends TIERS, saying it makes decision-making more uniform.

As we have seen before, these problems with TIERS have caused the HHSC to run afoul of federal regulations concerning food stamp application processing. This policy change, which for sure would have faced the same levels of pushback from the likes of David Dewhurst had it been part of a bill making its way through the Lege, was made because of the shortcomings of the same privatization fiasco that was passed in the name of saving money. Justice is rarely this poetic. Now perhaps we can see how much better the 12-month window serves the people who depend on this program, and make it an official policy change next year. It may be a strange and counterproductive way to get to a good policy result, but the fact of getting there is what would matter.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 23, 2008 to Budget ballyhoo