Wednesday, March 31, 2010

900 case Backlog is a good case for the San Benito County civil grand jury

The backlog of more than 900 cases at San Benito County's Health and Human Services Agency (HHS) is a perfect candidate for investigation by the San Benito County Civil Grand Jury.

Last week HHS Director Kathryn Flores noted that the agency had more than 6,250 open cases (up from the last year's average of 5,230) in the Statewide Automated Welfare System (SAWS). However, the pressing problem was a 944 case backlog and files from 1,700 old cases (now reduced to 1,300) awaiting records/data transfer due to system limitations.

Put yourself in the shoes of an applicant: You apply for badly needed assistance only to discover that the system is overwhelmed and it could take weeks or months to have your application processed.

Flores reported that HHS has been working overtime and was arranging to get extra help from San Bernardino County as well as hiring additional caseworkers; however, it could take 4-6 months to train the new hires thoroughly.

According to the "Grand Jury serves a primary civil (non-criminal) function - namely the investigation of county and city government, special districts, and school districts. These civil investigations result in recommendations for improvements to save taxpayers' dollars and to improve services." If there is a service that needs improving, this is it.

In the case of HHS, the county and state are "joined at the hip." They work in close concert; the state sets the rules and, for the most part, provides funding and systems, while the county manages the program locally and delivers the services that enable benefits or contracts for them. Therefore, it is critical that the Civil Grand Jury to look at the entire system including state mandates and not merely the individual or county pieces.

If they find the state has some responsibility for the backlog due to system design, poor training materials, restrictions or any other reason they should refer their findings to the appropriate state agency and to the Milton Marks "Little Hoover" Commission.

The Little Hoover Commission is an independent state oversight agency created in 1962. It has a special charge, to wit: "unlike fiscal or performance audits, the Commission's studies look beyond whether programs comply with existing requirements, instead exploring how programs could and should function in today's world."

The original Consortium IV, commonly called C-IV (C-4), were four counties that came together in 1996 to develop the system. According to the usual over-hyped press release, "The C-IV System was successfully implemented by October 2004. The System is a user-friendly, customer-focused, on-line and fully integrated information system." The new system went into use in San Benito County at the beginning of November 2009 and that was when the economic crash hit - bad timing. Still, no system that requires months of training for experienced caseworkers can be classified as 'user-friendly.'

Director Flores told me that the system is working well in those counties where it has been in use for five years. Regardless, ease of training and use are key issues when it comes to systems that have been in development for many years - after all, they often become obsolete by the time they hit the field.

Some new sets of eyes from outside the system may be able to recommend constructive improvements, identify hidden bottlenecks and even lay the groundwork for better results the next time the state fields a system - there will be a next time. In the meantime, the aid programs are available, but they will not do much good for those just waiting in line.

Marty Richman is a Hollister resident.

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