Raimondo defends UHIP launch, denies knowledge of federal warnings

Gov. Gina Raimondo (D-Rhode Island) addresses issues with the new UHIP online benefits system.
Gov. Gina Raimondo (D-Rhode Island) addresses issues with the new UHIP online benefits system.

PROVIDENCE, R.I (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo said Wednesday she wasn’t personally aware of strongly worded letters from the federal government to her administration that warned the state’s new $364-million benefits system wasn’t ready to launch.

“It was not brought up to me, no,” Raimondo said in an interview one day after Target 12 revealed the letters. “At any given time, there’s a lot of letters being sent from the federal government to my team on any number of issues.”

One of the letters from the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), dated Sept. 6, warned R.I. Department of Human Services Director Melba Depeña Affigne that Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as food stamps, could be interrupted with the launch of the the United Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP).

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

Raimondo pointed out that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) sent a letter dated Sept. 9 that authorized UHIP to formally connect to the federal CMS system. “CMS approved it,” Raimondo said. “Our main federal partner gave us the go-ahead.”

Still, multiple lawmakers including House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, and state Rep. Patricia Serpa, D-West Warwick, have spoken out over the issues with the rollout, which include SNAP recipients not receiving their money. The new computer system also handles other social services such as HealthSourceRI and Medicaid.

“UHIP has been troubled from the start,” Mattiello said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”

The federal authorities apparently prohibited the launch of UHIP once, according to a letter dated May 31, released by the state Wednesday as part of a batch of correspondence between Rhode Island and the federal government. In the letter, FNS administrator Kurt Messner said the agency had decided not to allow the state to move forward with a July 2016 launch date because of an insufficient pilot program. The September letters he sent did not outright prohibit the state from launching UHIP, but warned strongly against it.

In another letter following the launch, dated Sept. 23, Rhode Island’s SNAP administrator Iwona Ramian asked FNS for an extension on the first of newly required weekly reports about the new system. The first report was due to the federal government on Sept. 26. On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services said the weekly report still has not been finalized.

“We’re fixing the mistakes, and I’m going to hold my team accountable,” Raimondo said Wednesday. Pressed further, she said that “there will be consequences” if the system isn’t fixed.

Still, Raimondo said the system has been working well for the vast majority of benefit recipients, numbering in the tens of thousands, and pointed out that most IT-related projects have glitches at first.

“There’s no such thing as a perfect IT rollout,” she said. “Apple, Microsoft, the biggest and best companies … it doesn’t exist.”

Susan Campbell contributed to this report.