New DHS leader hopeful about UHIP turnaround

Courtney Hawkins tells Target 12 the goal is for UHIP to be stable by Oct. 1

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – Since Courtney Hawkins was tapped to lead Rhode Island’s Department of Human Services, the agency has reported working through thousands of pending applications for benefits for things like food, child care, and-long term care.

“Our focus right now has really been on eligibility determination and efficiency,” Hawkins told Target 12 in an extended sit-down interview.

Since its launch last September, the Unified Health Infrastructure Project, better known as UHIP, has been riddled with problems that have affected benefits for tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders. But Hawkins said she’s encouraged by recent progress.

“Our rates of being able to work cases from start to finish in one sitting continue to improve month over month, so that’s a good sign to show us that we’re making progress,” Hawkins said. “But we’re certainly not where we want to be.”

Hawkins added, “We certainly still have a goal to have a stable system by Oct. 1. Whether or not it’s as productive as we want it to be is yet to be seen.”

Target 12 has learned that a series of UHIP system upgrades was recently completed, and there are additional planned upgrades that are scheduled to be done by the end of September.

“Two are development releases that will provide enhancements for the worker and the customer portals,” Hawkins explained. “Then we have two releases that will just fix bugs in the system.”

Hawkins said DHS will not implement any major system upgrades during open enrollment this fall. “We don’t want to be doing huge changes because we don’t want to do something that could cause a system crash,” she said.

“We will still fix problems,” she continued. “If issues come up that are big issues that are hurting a number of customers, we will go in there and make changes. We’re not going to do any of these new enhancements or any deployments that could sacrifice the quality of service for our open enrollment customers during the period of open enrollment.”

When asked how serious the remaining UHIP bugs are, Hawkins said, “I consider any bug that prevents us from working a case to be serious. We look at that every day, and we emphasize that with our teams as we move forward. We do still have cases that have to be fixed through workarounds, and we need to do better so that that’s not happening.”

The U.S. Food and Nutrition Service, the federal agency that oversees the SNAP program, is also keeping close tabs on Rhode Island’s efforts.

In July, FNS sent letters demanding action on the state’s food stamp reporting. The federal agency has also threatened to pull administrative funds. To put that in perspective, nearly $13 million was approved for Rhode Island’s state administrative expenses for SNAP for federal fiscal year 2017.

“I don’t think the threat is unveiled,” Hawkins said. “I think they could do it, but I hope that they won’t. I think it would not be helpful to us to lose administrative funding while we’re trying to navigate this.”

“I believe their job is to hold us accountable,” Hawkins added. “But I am grateful because they’re willing to do whatever we need to help us along, and I’ve found the partnership to be supportive in that way.”

Hawkins’ predecessor, Melba Depena Affigne was forced to resign in January. At a news conference announcing the staff shakeup, Gov. Gina Raimondo apologized for launching the troubled system and promised a stepped-up effort to fix the problems. Deloitte, the vendor that built UHIP, has also agreed to refund some of the state’s spending on the $364-million project.

Susan Campbell (scampbell@wpri.com) is the Call 12 for Action and Target 12 consumer investigator for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.