The need for answers and efficiency

Johnston Sun Rise ·

Local attention has turned in recent days to the largest IT program in the state’s history – and not for reasons Rhode Island leaders would like.

The Unified Health Infrastructure Project, or UHIP, a $364-million system to manage benefits such as those provided through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), was apparently activated despite warnings from some federal authorities that it was not ready.

Since the early September launch, data released last week indicate that many services reliant on the system, including SNAP benefits, EBT cards, Medicaid enrollment and HealthSource RI accounts, have encountered problems. Many of the more than 300,000 Rhode Islanders using the system – some of the most vulnerable members of our communities – have seen delays in receiving benefits and experienced hours-long wait times on the phone or at offices.

Kurt Messner, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), in letters on Sept. 2 and Sept. 6 warned the state’s Department of Human Services that the UHIP system had not been tested in a manner consistent with federal regulations ahead of the planned launch and that it remained “inadequate and unacceptable.”

Messner wrote that the state would be implementing the system “at its own risk” – with possible consequences including “reduced program access, worker backlogs, delayed application processing and untimely benefits, over-issuances and increased payment error rates.” The letter further cautions the state risked “program penalties or disallowed costs.”

Following news reports of the federal correspondence, members of the General Assembly scheduled a legislative oversight hearing on the system’s rollout. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello in a statement called UHIP “troubled from the start” and said “we deserve answers about why it took this long and this much money to get it wrong.”

Those are good questions, and we agree that Rhode Islanders deserve answers, particularly with an additional $124 million having recently been requested for UHIP. The federal government covering much of the cost, but the tab still adds up to tens of millions of dollars for the state’s taxpayers.

Gov. Gina Raimondo has said she was unaware of the FNS concerns and correspondence but pointed to approval from another agency to connect UHIP to a key federal data hub. Health and Human Services Secretary Elizabeth Roberts has said the system is working, and improvements will be visible on Nov. 1, a major date for benefits programs. The governor’s administration has generally characterized the issues seen with UHIP as the kind of bugs typical with the launch of any such system.

We await the legislative oversight hearings, and hope they provide true insight into the issue – not merely partisan wrangling. We also hope the administration is correct when it says the system will right itself in short order.

Rhode Islanders are sadly all too familiar with costly, inefficient initiatives and programs overseen by their government. This latest episode with UHIP serves as an unfortunate reminder that much work remains before we get to where we need to be.