More Reasons to Shed Tears for TIERS

Health and Human Services' TIERS program still plagued by rising costs and poor quality

The price tag and timeline on the state's integrated benefit enrollment system continues to balloon – it's now up to $1 billion upon implementation – with no clear idea of when we can actually flip the switch on the software.

The Texas Integrated Eligibility Rede­sign System software – which has been in development for nine years now and has seen multiple rollout delays – is supposed to expedite the application process for Texans seeking aid through health and human services programs. Travis and Williamson counties have served as the pilot areas for the software, but the honor has yet to yield consistent benefits to low-income Cen­tral Texas families. What can be said, out of the latest monitoring audit from the State Auditor's Office, is that there's always good news and bad news when it comes to TIERS.

The good news is that the Health and Human Services Commission continues to make progress on TIERS in incremental ways. According to the audit, metrics have been added. Fewer "workarounds" – tricks or added steps that workers need to use to make the system perform as expected – are needed. HHSC has worked to stabilize its work force, acknowledging that outside contracted workers simply couldn't get the job done with the same accuracy as tenured state employees.

And the bad news? The system still doesn't work well. And the price tag to make it work is growing. And those who follow the system's program say the TIERS software doesn't even match up to the old green-screen DOS-based SAVERR program, which was the enrollment workhorse for years.

"It sounds like they've done a fair job responding to some of the concerns raised in last year's audit, but I am wondering how the projected budget grew from $574 million through 2010 to $1 billion through 2011," said Center for Public Policy Priorities senior analyst Celia Hagert. "Also, the bottom line is, TIERS is still a slower system than SAVERR, which is causing massive delays in application processing when compared to SAVERR."

The budget issue is a touchy one for the Health and Human Services Commission, even more so than the fact that the rollout has slipped from 2010 to some undetermined date, according to last week's audit. HHSC spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman stresses the difference between the cost of the software and the cost of the capacity to deploy the software, which remains lacking, according to the audit. If asked to deploy TIERS today, HHSC would have the technological capacity to serve about a quarter of the state.

So has the cost of TIERS grown substantially? Goodman argues that the initial $574 million did not include the cost of technology infrastructure and deployment strategies. It also doesn't account for the savings that may eventually materialize from shedding workers once enrollment programs finally and truly are integrated. The bottom of the balance sheet – $1 billion or no – is still not clear.

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