Governor Scott Walker’s biennial budget includes a plan to transfer Economic Support programs from the counties to the state.
Walker’s proposal would privatize the administration of FoodShare, Badger Care Plus, Medical Assistance, Caretaker Assistance and other programs for low-income families.
The governor maintains that centralizing Economic Support services will save $48 million and eliminate 270 positions statewide.
Currently, the programs are administered in Waupaca County by 18 employees in the Economic Support Division of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
All 18 employees could lose their jobs under Walker’s proposal, according to county DHHS Director Ted Phernetton.
In Waupaca County, families seeking assistance go to the courthouse and meet with a case worker, who determines eligibility and the appropriate programs. The same case worker continues working with the same family, assisting with a myriad of issues such as referrals to job training or childcare programs.
“Our county staff does everything on a case,” said Adrienne Miller, manager of Economic Support. “They are responsible for a case from start to finish and maintain contact with the clients on an ongoing basis.”
Miller said she is concerned that the clients will no longer meet face-to-face with an individual case worker and instead have to apply over the phone or the Internet. She noted that many of the elderly and disabled do not have access to the Internet and will have difficulty applying for benefits over the phone.
“The state is relying heavily on technology,” Phernetton said. “Many of the people we work with do not have computers.”
Chris Machamer, coordinator of the county’s Economic Support programs, said Walker’s budget proposal is based on a model launched in 2009. That model was limited to childless adults seeking medical assistance. Their applications were processed by the Enrollment Services Center (ESC) in Madison. Hewlett Packard employees staff the ESC and handle program applications and case management services.
“That model is not working well, and we’re concerned there will be more problems when we expand it to elderly and disabled and families with children,” Machamer said.
As evidence of ESC’s shortcomings, Machamer pointed to a state study that found that ESC had more than 4,000 cases that had not been processed more than a year after clients made their initial applications.
Counties are required to determine eligibility within 30 days after an application is made and have a timeliness rate statewide of 74.7 percent, Machamer said, while ESC has a timeliness rate of 16.2 percent.
The state is also under a federal corrective action plan because of the wait times for processing Milwaukee County food stamp applications at the Enrollment Services Center.
The study found that a person calling ESC spends an average of 15 minutes on hold, with some clients reporting they were on hold as long as two hours.
Machamer also questioned the amount of savings claimed for the privatized plan. She said a state study found that it cost $291 per case to process applications through the centralized calling center, while it cost a statewide average of $283 for counties to process an Economic Support case.
“It is not an efficient model to be expanding statewide and it will make getting needed benefits especially difficult for the elderly and the disabled,” Machamer said.
Phernetton said Wisconsin could also lose more than $20 million in federal funds under the governor’s proposal.
On April 14, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent a letter to state Health Services Secretary Dennis Smith that warned that civil servants, not contracted employees, must determine eligibility for food stamps.
“Recent state agency privatization initiatives in Texas and Indiana have been complete failures, marked by technical difficulties, staffing shortages, and inadequate training of private call-center staff and resulting in adverse impacts on the state and its people,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in an April 28 statement.
Phernetton said the Wisconsin County Human Services Association has developed an alternative plan that would maintain staff in each county to process initial applications but rely on regional call centers to process changes. The plan could save up to $30 million.
“It doesn’t quite get to the governor’s proposed savings, but there are questions about whether his plan will result in $48 million in savings,” Phernetton said.
According to figures from the DHHS, 9,310 Waupaca County residents were receiving FoodShare and health care benefits through the county’s Economic Support Division as of March 1. That is approximately 18 percent of the county’s total population.
Each year, Waupaca County issues more than $100 million worth of Economic Support benefits, most of which are through the Medicaid program.
“Our biggest fear is that the most at-risk population in our county will not be able to get the help they need,” Machamer said.