Union head calls for federal audit of RI’s troubled benefits system

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The president of a local union is calling for the federal government to intervene as Rhode Island deals with more problems stemming from the troubled launch of its benefits eligibility system.

With a termination notice for electric and gas services in hand, Pauline Goss told Target 12 she hasn’t been able to pay her bills because her general public assistance checks for October and November never showed up in the mail.

“I was homeless before,” said Goss. “I don’t want to lose this house.”

Target 12 took Goss’s problem to the Department of Health and Human Services. Officials said they weren’t aware of the issue prior to that.

An employee hand-delivered Goss’s delayed checks late Friday afternoon.

“I’ve asked Deloitte to give us an assessment, just to make sure there are no other cases related to the same situation,” said DHS Director Melba Depena.

Deloitte is the company behind the state’s $364-million United Health Infrastructure Project, also known as UHIP. Since its launch in September, Depena’s department has been dealing with a number of issues, from long lines and call wait times to problems with residents’ SNAP benefits, state Supplemental Security Income (SSI) transfers, child care payments, EBT card operations, and Medicaid enrollment.

Lucie Burdick, the president of one of the unions that represents DHS employees, says cases like Goss’s are more common than state officials are reporting. She’s calling for the federal government to intervene, saying she believes there are serious problems with accuracy when it comes to UHIP.

“I feel at this point in time, it would benefit the state and taxpayers to have a federal forensic audit of what’s going on,” Burdick said.

Dept. of Administration Director Michael DiBiase disagreed.

“We don’t see that type of audit as warranted,” he said. “We have an obligation under the current system to demonstrate to the federal authorities that we’re operating the system appropriately, so we’ll take on that obligation.”

In the meantime, big changes are on the way at the DHS field office in Providence.

In an effort to reduce wait times, a second waiting area will be added, the drop box for documents will be located outside the building, and there will be full-time greeters at the front door to assist customers.

DHS officials say the first of November was much better than the first of October, when benefits for thousands of Rhode Islanders were delayed because of a computer glitch.

“I do think as we get near the end of this calendar year, we should be in a much more stable state,” said DiBiase. “Every week will be better.”

Burdick, on the other hand, says things are just getting worse.

“They should trash the entire system,” she said. “They should go back to Inroads. They should properly roll it out, concurrently running test cases on a smaller level. They should stop harming our clients.”

The backlog of pending benefits applications at the DHS stands at 10,693 as of Thursday. State officials said they aim to clear that up by the end of November.