RI ignored federal warnings on launch of new $364M benefits system

State told it was proceeding 'at its own risk' due to 'inadequate and unacceptable' plan


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Raimondo administration ignored strongly worded warnings from the federal government that its new $364-million benefits system wasn’t ready to launch last month, and officials put federal funding at risk by going ahead anyway, Target 12 has learned.

Letters sent by the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), newly obtained by Target 12, show the agency’s Northeast regional administrator repeatedly urged Rhode Island leaders to postpone the looming Sept. 13 launch of the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP), the biggest IT project in state history. He was concerned that it would interfere with operations of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps, which his agency oversees.

“The transition plan remains inadequate and unacceptable,” Kurt Messner, the regional administrator, wrote bluntly on Sept. 6.

In that letter and a separate one he’d sent four days earlier – both addressed to R.I. Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Melba Depeña Affigne – Messner ticked off a litany of worries about whether the computer system was ready to go.

His biggest concern appeared to be the state’s decision not to conduct a live pilot test of the system or roll it out in phases, and he emphasized that “failure to do so is in violation” of federal SNAP regulations. He warned that the decision could cost the state money due to “program penalties or disallowed costs.”

“Launching a system without having conducted a live pilot is against the intent of the regulations and against our best advice, and by doing so, FNS wishes DHS to know that it proceeds with the deployment of [UHIP] at its own risk,” Messner wrote.

“Risks include reduced program access, worker backlogs, delayed application processing and untimely benefits, over-issuances and increased payment error rates,” he continued.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Elizabeth Roberts, who’s been closely involved with the UHIP project since it started in 2011, deflected questions at a news conference Friday about what the federal agency had said. She noted that federal officials were aware of the state’s plans and did not block the launch.

Brenna McCabe, a spokeswoman for the R.I. Department of Administration, reiterated that point in a statement on the federal letters, telling Target 12: “As you will see … FNS expressed concerns with the state’s plans, but at no time did they instruct us to stop the launch of the system on Sept. 13.”

Roberts said Friday the new system is “working” and being used by more than 318,000 Rhode Islanders. But a number of problems have come to light in its first month, affecting not only SNAP benefits but also child-care payments, EBT cards, state Supplemental Security Income (SSI) transfers, HealthSource RI insurance accounts, and Medicaid enrollment. Those have been accompanied by complaints about multihour waits at field offices and clogged phone lines.

Allyn Reynolds, a Providence resident who receives SNAP benefits, told Target 12 she called DHS after her food stamps didn’t arrive on time Oct. 1 and she was left on hold for more than two hours. “It was a scary thought. … When? When are we going to get this money? And what do I do in the meantime?” Reynolds said, adding: “I was down to canned vegetables.”

It’s not yet known whether FNS will penalize Rhode Island for the system’s bugs, since it can take several months for such a decision to be made. “We are working with our partners to ensure that we meet all requirements without penalty,” Ashley O’Shea, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, told Target 12. “As of now, we have not been assessed any penalties.”

The lack of testing wasn’t the only concern Messner expressed about UHIP in his letters. He also pointed to “high-level defects” in the IT system; a “lack of detail” in contingency plans; the potential of breaching federal deadlines; an “insufficient” communications plan; low employee morale following layoffs; and inadequate time to train temporary workers.

Messner also noted that UHIP’s start date had already been delayed by two months after, in May, his agency barred DHS from launching it as then scheduled and required a full three-month pilot test; he said DHS instead went with an alternative pre-launch plan. FNS has kept staff on site at DHS offices in Rhode Island since Sept. 13 to monitor the system’s implementation.

In a reply to Messner on Sept. 8, Depeña Affigne offered the state’s rebuttal to the concerns he expressed in his letter, describing officials as “confident in its readiness” following successful tests and disputing his assertion that both communications and worker preparedness were lacking.

“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,” she wrote.

Roberts said Friday the various problems with UHIP that have come to light were partly due to Oct. 1 being the first start of a new month since the system launched, and many benefits programs are tied to the first of the month. She said Nov. 1 will provide a good test of whether the issues with the system are being resolved.

Rhode Island officials recently requested another $124 million to fund UHIP, which would bring its total cost to $487 million from 2011 through 2018, though they say the final amount needed will be lower. While the federal government is picking up about four-fifths of the project’s cost, state taxpayers are responsible for the rest, with the state share totaling almost $79 million as of the current budget.

R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell said Friday that Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello should both be held responsible for the UHIP problems, and questioned why advocacy organizations weren’t speaking out more, asserting that a Republican governor “would likely have been hanging … in effigy” if he’d overseen such a rollout.

“This system has disserved many citizens this month by not delivering their benefits on time, and has caused cost and inconvenience for that population by requiring them to go to DHS offices multiple times to stand in day long lines to try to restore their benefits,” Bell said.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram