Feds refuse to OK millions more for RI benefits system due to IT woes

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The main federal agency partnering on Rhode Island’s troubled new computer system for benefits has denied a request to spend tens of millions of dollars more on the project and demanded answers about the problems plaguing it.

In a letter dated Thursday that the Raimondo administration did not release until Saturday afternoon, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) approved just $19 million of the additional $124 million the state proposed spending on the system last July. All that is on top of the $364 million in federal and state money that’s already been spent on the system.

Martin Rice, a CMS official, said the agency was approving the $19 million for UHIP maintenance and operations but not yet willing to support adding more functions “due to ongoing concerns with the system’s stability,” as well as questions about the proposed funding structure and “an overall lack of specificity” in state planning documents.

It’s the latest in a cascade of criticism over the benefits system, known as the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP), which launched in September after multiple delays and has experienced technical problems ever since. The ACLU filed suit against the state over the project on Friday, alleging it has caused illegal delays in processing applications.

UHIP is the most expensive government IT project in Rhode Island history.

State officials now say they reached out to CMS a few days before the new letter arrived and received permission to scrap much of the application filed in July by narrowing their requests. (When Eyewitness News first revealed the new request for $124 million, they insisted most of it represented just a “wish list.”)

“We do not disagree with the agency’s decision to defer conversations about added functionality given the current state of the system,” Brenna McCabe, a spokeswoman for the R.I. Department of Administration, said in an email Saturday.

“Our sole focus and priority right now is to work together with our vendor and our partners to stabilize the new eligibility system as quickly as possible so that we can most effectively meet the needs of the people we serve,” she said.

In his letter, Rice demanded the state provide within 60 days a long list of additional information about the ongoing problems with UHIP, including detailed breakdowns of the system’s bugs and further demographic data about pending Meidcaid applications. He said state officials have “alternately reported in different venues” that they don’t expect the system to be stabilized until either March or June.

Notably, Rice questioned the state’s efforts to get federal Medicaid money to cover the lion’s share of additional UHIP functions, “given that much of the functionality described on the roadmaps – particularly the significant body of outstanding SNAP functionality identified by FNS – appears to be specific to non-Medicaid programs.”

SNAP is short for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often called food stamps, while FNS is short for the U.S. Food & Nutrition Service that oversees SNAP. FNS has appeared more aggressive than CMS in pushing back at the state over UHIP until now, warning just before the launch that the system wasn’t ready and demanding a plan to fix it that was submitted last month.

Nevertheless, McCabe suggested everyone remains on the same page.

“CMS and the state share the same concern – that our customers are not getting the level of service they deserve in this transition process and that we should strengthen our efforts to improve our customer service and stabilize the operation of the system we have,” she said.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram