March 17, 2012

DHHS glitch raises staffing concerns

A York Democrat wonders whether understaffing played a role in allowing ineligible people to keep benefits.

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - The state may want to beef up the staff of its Department of Health and Human Services to help prevent costly computer problems in the future, a lawmaker from southern Maine said Friday.

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, said she wonders what other problems may crop up in light of the revelations last week that, because of a computer glitch, as many as 19,000 people who were no longer eligible for MaineCare continued getting benefits for months.

"I wonder what else might be hiding in the shadows," Hill said Friday during a meeting of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee.

State Controller Terry Brann, one of several officials who are working on the problem, said overworked employees may be part of the problem. "There's a lot of competent people possibly doing too many things," he said.

Brann told the committee that a team is meeting twice a day to discuss progress in the investigation of the problem.

The team has not yet determined whether the problem will increase or decrease an estimated $100 million deficit in the current two-year DHHS budget. It is analyzing more than 38,000 lines of data associated with the 19,000 people who continued to get their health care covered.

Costs for MaineCare, the state's Medicaid program, are expected to decrease because the problem has been detected and ineligible people will no longer get benefits. But DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew has said she expects the state will have to repay money to the federal government that was paid in error.

About two-thirds of MaineCare is funded with federal money.

"It's too preliminary for me to say which way the number goes" on the deficit, Brann said.

Legislators are pushing for a number because they must finish their work by mid-April. It's likely that they will get some information before the legislative session ends, but will have to come back in the summer or fall to address another DHHS-related budget, Brann said.

Computer problems are not new for the DHHS, which has struggled to establish a functional Medicaid billing system since 2005.

Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, House chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he's confident that Brann and others will get to the bottom of the problem.

"Clearly, we've had some tough days here," he said. "We'll probably have some tougher ones."

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said she wants to make sure the committee gets solid budget data before it is required to vote on any budget.

"We're eliminating health care services to people that in some instances can be life-or-death," she said. "We want our numbers to be accurate."

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com

 

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