Backlog grows in Rhode Island’s troubled benefits system

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP/WPRI) — A backlog of public assistance applications has grown to nearly 8,400 following the troubled rollout of Rhode Island’s new $364 million benefits system.

State health officials said Friday the already-high backlog has grown by another 335 since Tuesday, in part because more applications were filed.

The new computer system, known as the Unified Health Infrastructure Project, went live on Sept. 13. It handles applications for food stamps, Medicaid benefits and other services.

The state House of Representatives oversight and finance committees held an hours-long hearing Thursday where officials from Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration were grilled about the problems.

Rep. Patricia Serpa, the West Warwick Democrat who leads the oversight committee, says launching the system despite a federal official warning it wasn’t ready was an unacceptable blunder affecting thousands of people.

The state Department of Human Services said it’s already making some changes.

“It is our top priority to make sure we have a system that is working well for all of the people that we serve,” said Sec. of Health and Human Services Elizabeth Roberts.

For starters, a call-back feature that had stopped working is back up and running so residents hopefully won’t have to wait on hold.

The agency is also beefing up its escalation unit and planning to add an emergency phone line for people who need immediate help with their benefits.

“We have an informal process right now for handling that, but we need to formalize it so people can get through if they have urgent situations,” Dept. of Administration Director Michael DiBiase explained.

At lawmakers’ recommendation, the DHS is going to put suggestion boxes in all of its field offices and staff is getting additional training from Deloitte, the company hired to build the new system.

Sec. Roberts said she plans to visit at least one field office a week to speak to clients and employees about their concerns.