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July 13th, 2008:

TIERS for Medicaid

This can’t be good.

State social services officials now plan to switch 1 million or more needy people in the next year to a different application process for benefits, including Medicaid and food stamps.

The state says it intends to shift 953,000 elderly and disabled Medicaid patients into its problem-plagued “integrated eligibility” system by September 2009 – on top of its previously stated goal of moving in 288,000 more food stamp recipients by August 2009.

The state’s decision, tucked into an advance copy of Health and Human Services Commission chief Albert Hawkins’ planned testimony to a legislative panel next week, caught advocates for the poor, state employee groups, and a veteran Democratic lawmaker by surprise Friday.

They expressed alarm that Mr. Hawkins would so greatly accelerate the rollout of TIERS – the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System – to aid recipients statewide.

“I’m concerned that the commission is going to take one of the most vulnerable populations, the elderly and disabled, and convert these extremely complicated cases into TIERS so quickly,” said Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin. He said the Medicaid recipients are “most likely to have problems” and there could be “dire consequences.”

The Texas State Employees Union, which has said an old mainframe-based system works much better than TIERS, denounced the plan.

“It borders on irresponsible behavior,” said union spokesman Will Rogers. “They haven’t worked out all the bugs with TIERS. You’re playing with people’s lives by doing that.”

Mr. Hawkins has said the mainframe computer used for Texas benefit applications is one of only seven of its type left in existence. The old approach is outmoded and costly, while TIERS is being improved, he has said.

My archives are still in a state of transition or I’d point you to a bunch of past postings on this subject. Suffice it to say that TIERS has been screwed up from the beginning – just read this Observer piece for the flavor of it – and that the more it gets used, the more pain it will cause. It’s also not a surprise to me that this was sprung on people, since had more folks known it was coming, there would have been a huge fuss kicked up. This is about the only way you can do a bigger TIERS rollout, by stealth and subterfuge.

As it happens, for those of you who’ll be in Austin tomorrow, there will be a Legislative Oversight Committee hearing on TIERS. See HHSC Employee for the details.

The Chron on Bradford

The Chron has a curious article about former HPD Chief Clarence Bradford, who is now running for District Attorney as the Democratic candidate. I say “curious” because I can’t tell if it’s a special one-time-only story about one candidate, or if it’s the first in a series. I don’t think it’s the latter, since there’s no indicator of such, and since it’s awfully early for the Chron to begin its notoriously meager coverage of local races, so one wonders what brought this story on. That’s a question I can’t answer.

The story focuses on Bradford’s tenure as HPD Chief, and it’s not particularly flattering, though Bradford does a decent job defending himself.

On the crime lab mess, with its flawed testing of DNA and other evidence leading to overturned convictions, Bradford accepts limited blame.

“What I should have done — which I didn’t see until this all blew up — I should have at least annually gotten independent audits of the crime lab, as opposed to relying on, like the two previous chiefs had done, this particular supervisor … stating the crime lab met all the federal standards,” he said. “So, yes, that’s when I dropped the ball. I relied too heavily on the people with the science and biology degrees.”

Bradford, with degrees in criminal justice, public administration and law as well as training by the FBI National Academy and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, considers the lab failures a plus for him now: “I am able to learn from those and move forward. … That makes me more prepared to go in and deal with organizational issues such as these.”

The former chief, however, said he had no intention of reading all of the reports on the two-year, $5.3 million investigation of the crime lab by a team led by Michael Bromwich, a former U.S. Justice Department inspector.

Asked why, Bradford replied: “Because I was part of the process (of the investigation). I am familiar with the reports; I have read the summary of all of them.”

The reports repeatedly fault HPD’s “chain of command” for lax oversight. Bradford said he disagrees with some of the conclusions.

I’d like to know if we’ll see as much ink spilled on what Bradford and his opponent Pat Lykos hope to do with the DA’s office going forward as we’ve seen here on Bradford’s past. For instance, Bradford now advocates removing the crime lab from the purview of HPD and the DA’s office and making it completely independent; the story doesn’t mention that, or what Lykos would do with it, at all. I realize that everyone’s happy to see Chuck Rosenthal hit the road, but the issues in that office didn’t magically solve themselves upon his departure, and as both Bradford and Lykos have different visions about where the District Attorney should go from here, it’d be nice to have some attention paid to that. And if we are going to spend time talking about the candidates’ past experiences – certainly a reasonable and valid approach – then bring on the companion piece about Lykos, and every other candidate for countywide office. If that’s what we’re going to get, then let’s get going. Election Day will be on us before you know it.

UPDATE: Alan Bernstein emails to remind me of this Lykos profile from the primaries. He also says we will indeed be seeing more like this, and more about campaign issues, which warms the cockles of my heart.

DPS director to retire

The longtime director of DPS is retiring.

“After 43 years and 9 months with the Texas Department of Public Safety, I am retiring on Aug. 31, 2008,” Col. Thomas A. Davis Jr. said in a brief statement.

Davis, 67, who has headed the agency since November 1999, declined to be interviewed.

The DPS has been under harsh criticism for the past two months over agency structure and management.

A legislative review panel found that the department’s structure hampers communications and crime analysis; that it has outdated computer systems; that driver’s licensing should be handled as a business service; and that the agency lacks the tools to prevent and respond to terrorism.

Less than a month after that report was issued, an intruder in June set the Governor’s Mansion on fire with a Molotov cocktail. Despite warnings from the governor’s protective detail and state preservation officials that at least three officers needed to be on duty at all times during the mansion’s renovation, only one officer was assigned on the night of the fire. And that trooper already had finished a guard shift at a nearby state museum.

Davis told a legislative committee that he didn’t receive any request for additional troopers to help guard the mansion, and it wasn’t immediately clear how far up the chain of command the request went.

Davis defended the agency, saying it now performs “better than anytime I have seen it” during his 43 years with DPS.

The chairman of the board that oversees the DPS has promised a major restructuring of the agency and last month hinted that it would be done with or without Davis’ help. But Chairman Allan Polunsky said Davis was not forced to retire.

“Only Col. Davis could explain what motivated him to retire at this point,” Polunsky said.

He added, “Most definitely the agency is headed in a new direction. This began prior to today’s announcement from Colonel Davis.”

I don’t really know enough about the politics surrounding DPS to have a substantive opinion about this. But I note with some interest a big difference in the opinions of Col. Davis expressed by Paul Burka and Jake Bernstein. Here’s Burka:

It’s about time. It seems to me that the political leadership has been inexplicably complacent about the shortcomings of security at the Governor’s Mansion — despite the fact that Governor Perry is the most security-conscious chief executive in my memory. Clearly, he has been working behind the scenes to get rid of Davis. We still need to know what Perry knew about the security problems at the Mansion and when he knew it. Did DPS inform him about its lack of personnel and its malfunctioning alarm and surveillance equipment? I bet not. If Perry had known, given his concern about security, he would have done something about them.

And here’s Bernstein:

If the mansion fire was a DPS error, the fault likely did not reside with Davis. Yes the DPS did not have sufficient staff at the mansion. But one has to wonder if troopers were pulled off the mansion detail to accompany the governor as he gallivanted around Europe on the taxpayer’s dime. We will never know since DPS does not comment on the governor’s security. Another, perhaps more likely, reason why there was only one trooper at the mansion has to do with Operation Border Star, Perry’s get-tough on the border initiative. It is now apparently standard practice to send troopers down in squads to patrol the border area, stretching an already undermanned agency.

The Sunset Review found all manner of problems at the DPS, including the aforementioned shortage of officers. This is less Davis’ fault than the demographics of an aging population and a very young one without much in between. It also doesn’t help that there is fierce competition for officers from the border patrol and the military. The feds pay more. The review also found fault with DPS’ handling of driver’s licenses. The logical solution to this would be to spin off this non-law enforcement responsibility as a stand alone or move it to another agency, say TXDOT. DPS Commission Chairman Alan Polunsky made it clear that he would never agree to such a move.

I can’t break the tie, so I’ll leave it to you. Bernstein goes into a lot more under-the-hood stuff, including some internal tensions within DPS’ leadership and the agency’s new focus on intelligence, specifically the TDEX database, all of which is worth reading. Anybody out there want to pick a side on this one?

Pee in a cup, go to jail

This is ridiculous.

“I don’t believe in locking people up for dirty urines,” said Bill Fitzgerald, the Chief Probation Officer during an interview in his office with the Trouble Shooters.

He says that he expected a spike in positive test results.

That’s because back in February they stopped doing the drug tests themselves and hired a company that does drug testing called Treatment Associates.

They use a small, thin, rectangular-shaped, one-time-use device that is dipped in the urine.

It’s called a rapid test.

The manufacturer says it’s used as a preliminary test.

If a single line appears in one of the boxes on the face of the device, you are positive for that class of drug, but not necessarily an illegal drug.

“There’s one issue there on my part that the test is more sensitive. So I anticipated we would end up with more people showing up positive for urinalysis. This test is more sensitive than the ones we used previously,” said Fitzgerald.

In fact, it’s sensitive enough that many prescription, and even some over-the counter, drugs will test positive.

Something as common as cold medicine could land a person back in jail.

And knowing all that, the county is still using this single test to determine someone’s future.

Fitzgerald says the probationers have the right to ask for a confirmation test, yet he admits they’re not told they have that option.

So a poorly-designed urinalysis test, whose sensitivity to a broad range of non-illegal drugs causes it to give a large number of false positives, is causing probationers in Bexar County who have done nothing wrong and have been following the rules to get locked up. It’s even worse than that, because there are confirmation tests available to the county at no extra charge, but they’re not being used because hey, who cares? I’ve got to agree with Grits here: Doesn’t that border on willful negligence? There’s a whistleblower lawsuit in the mix as well, and all I can say is I hope he socks it to them. I’m just speechless.

Texans Against Hunger

As the economy sags and food prices rise along with gas prices, stories about hunger and the ability of food banks to keep up with demand have been in the news lately. There’s now a blog that is following this topic, called Texans Against Hunger. Normally, when an interesting new blog comes along, I wish for it to have a long life and much material to write about. In this case, I’m going to make an exception, and hope that conditions change enough to make them feel like they can safely retire. Since that sadly won’t happen any time soon, use Texans Against Hunger as your one-stop shop for news on the topic.