Outraged RI lawmakers will hold hearing on ‘botched’ benefits system

Mattiello questions 'why it took this long and this much money to get it wrong'


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Outraged Rhode Island lawmakers plan to grill Raimondo administration officials next week on why they went ahead with the launch of an expensive new benefits system despite warnings from the federal government that it wasn’t ready.

The announcement that House Finance and House Oversight Committee members will hold a joint Oct. 20 hearing on what they now say was a “botched rollout” came less than 24 hours after Target 12 revealed letters from a federal official that warned state leaders against launching the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP), the biggest IT project in state history.

“UHIP has been troubled from the start,” House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, said in a statement. “It has far exceeded its original price tag, and we deserve answers about why it took this long and this much money to get it wrong.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo said Wednesday evening she was not informed about the warning letters from the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). She also noted that the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the biggest federal agency involved in UHIP, allowed the project to launch in a letter on Sept. 9.

“I had briefings about it, but at any given time there’s a lot of letters being sent from the federal government to my team on any number of issues,” Raimondo, a Democrat, told Target 12.

“It wasn’t brought up to me, no,” she said. “But again, CMS approved it. Our main federal partner gave us the go-ahead.”

UHIP was begun in 2011 by the Chafee administration to build the state’s Obamacare portal, HealthSource RI, and to replace its three-decade-old system for managing benefits programs like food stamps and Medicaid. The project has faced repeated delays, and its cost has nearly tripled to $364 million so far; an additional $124 million was recently requested for it.

Mattiello and House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Patricia Serpa, D-West Warwick, said they were moved to call the hearing after seeing the news story on the federal warnings, though they were already concerned by reports of various problems with the system since it went live on Sept. 13.

“Once again, impatience on behalf of state agencies’ leaders and inadequate preparation resulted in a half-baked program being thrust upon Rhode Islanders,” Serpa said. “This time, it went beyond embarrassment and inconvenience, leaving our most vulnerable citizens — children, the elderly, the disabled, the needy  — without support. This avoidable blunder affected thousands of human lives, and those responsible for it should account for their actions.”

Serpa said she and House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin Abney, D-Newport, are still figuring out the agenda for the oversight hearing, including which officials will be called to testify. Secretary of Health and Human Services Elizabeth Roberts, R.I. Department of Human Services Director Melba Depeña Affigne and R.I. Department of Administration Director Michael DiBiase have all been involved in UHIP since Raimondo took office. Depeña Affigne took over DHS after working on Raimondo’s 2014 campaign, which Roberts supported.

Roberts said last week the new system is “working” and being used by more than 318,000 Rhode Islanders. She also said the recent problems were tied to Oct. 1 being the first start of a new month since the system launched, and said Nov. 1 will provide a good test for whether the issues are being worked out.

Ashley O’Shea, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said of the Oct. 20 hearing, “we welcome the opportunity to engage in a deeper discussion with our legislative colleagues about the launch of the eligibility system.”

O’Shea also released nine more letters between Rhode Island and federal officials related to UHIP, dating from May 31 to Oct. 3. She said the state has yet to begin submitting weekly reports demanded by federal officials detailing its backlog for food stamps, though some “raw data” was provided “in a sample template.”

In the May 31 letter, Kurt Messner, FNS’s regional administrator, recalled that “Rhode Island intended to do a statewide implementation [of UHIP] in July 2015, when it became apparent that much of the required SNAP functionality had yet to be completed.” (SNAP is the acronym for the food stamp program.) He said the state then “re-scoped the effort and focused on developing and further testing SNAP, with a new statewide implementation date of July 2016.”

But Messner went on to say the state still wasn’t ready, and he ordered a delay for further testing. The letters previously revealed on Tuesday showed Messner still wasn’t comfortable with the system’s readiness just before the new Sept. 13 launch date, but unlike in May, he did not expressly order the state to stop.

State Rep. Jared Nunes, D-Coventry, called the administration’s decision to launch the system despite federal opposition “incomprehensible,” and said he’s received dozens of phone calls and emails from constituents struggling to access benefits since it went live. He also said he’s concerned that the federal government has said the state could be on the hook for some costs if they are tied to the troubled launch.

“I have a big problem if the administration is going to come back to the legislature and ask for more money in the future due to them jumping the gun on this computer program,” Nunes told Target 12, adding: “The federal government couldn’t have come out any stronger against them implementing this.”

R.I. Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell called for legislative oversight hearings on UHIP last Friday, accusing Mattiello at the time of being “more concerned with providing political cover for the Raimondo administration than doing the people’s business.”

After Wednesday’s announcement that a hearing had been scheduled, Bell said: “This raises the question of why does it always take the Republicans to get the speaker to do what he should have done in the first place?” He noted a March report by the auditor general which warned of various issues that could “present risks to the proper functioning of the UHIP system.”

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

Steph Machado contributed to this report.