Laying The Blame, Then Plotting A Course, For UHIP

Feb 15, 2017

Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

Problems with the state’s new online public assistance system, UHIP, are much more significant than anyone realized. 

That’s the major finding of a new report about the rollout of a system that was supposed to improve customer service for people who receive benefits like food stamps and Medicaid. The system was also supposed to save the state money.  It’s been clear for months that there are problems. But the new assessment shows just how bad they are.


Nearly one in three Rhode Islanders receives benefits of some kind through a massive state system. Food stamps. Medicaid. Cash assistance. They’re directly affected by what even the governor admits was a botched rollout. Nearly 15,000 applications for benefits are pending. The Economic Progress Institute’s Linda Katz has been tracking the fallout since the system’s launch last September.


“There have been people who have not had access to their medications on time, there are certainly people who have been waiting for SNAP food assistance for long periods of time," said Katz. "We know that people have not had their applications for child care assistance processed on time. For long term care services we have heard of people who could have been kept at home and wound up going to nursing facilities because they couldn’t get approval for the home based care that they need.”


Speaking on Wednesday morning, Governor Gina Raimondo acknowledged the human cost of the project’s failure.

To all the Rhode Islanders who have been struggling with the system and endured hardships because the system has not worked, I apologize. - Gov. Gina Raimondo


“This isn’t about a computer system. This is about the lives of thousands of Rhode Islanders who are depending on us to get this right. And we’ve let them down," said Raimondo. "And so to all of the employees at DHS who have been struggling with this new system and to all the Rhode Islanders who have been struggling with the system and endured hardships because the system hasn’t worked, I apologize.”


Home health care providers and nursing home operators would like an apology too because system glitches have kept them from getting paid for months.

To get to the bottom of these problems, Raimondo directed her chief of operations, Eric Beane, to spend 30 days figuring out what went wrong and how to fix it.


Beane’s report was grim. But Raimondo says it was overdue. “His report to me is the first time I’ve received a truly unvarnished, not rosy picture of the situation.”


Raimondo’s first takeaway about the root cause of the problems is that system vendor Deloitte said the project was ready to roll out when it wasn’t. She says she pressed them on their readiness before the switch was flipped, and the consultants gave the thumbs up. But there were major technical flaws.


“Our vendor Deloitte produced for us a defective system. We didn’t get what we paid for. And they represented to us that it was in much better shape than it was.”


Second, Raimondo says, the state wasn’t capable of recognizing those mistakes: “We didn’t have enough high quality IT state staff to hold Deloitte accountable. So we were overly reliant on them.”


Industry analyst and host of business forum CXO Talk Michael Krigsman has studied major IT project failures for years. He says Deloitte has been the lead systems integrator on a number of botched public sector projects.


“There is this pattern if you go back over the last five years and you look across the country, you do see Deloitte’s name popping up a lot in these very large projects where there were real problems.”


In states like Kentucky and Massachusetts. But Krigsman says Deloitte probably doesn’t deserve 100 percent of the blame. These are huge, technical projects, integrating decades old systems and millions of data points. Hundreds of employees must learn new ways of doing things. Programmers must carefully braid a tangle of state processes and federal regulations.


“It’s really hard to isolate all of the pieces because these projects have their tentacles in so many different places. And Deloitte is a very tempting target. It’s very easy to say they’re at fault. And they may well be," said Krigsman. "But there is a buyer on the other side. And the assumption is that the buyer on the other side is a sophisticated buyer.”


That buyer, Rhode Island, may not have known exactly what it was buying or how to measure its success. But the governor says that’s changing. First, the state is going to renegotiate the contract with Deloitte. And they’ll withhold payment until everything is fixed, says the governor.


Raimondo says there’s a chance she’ll sue.


“I’ve also demanded," she said, "that they pay for any unanticipated costs that the state will incur on account of their mistakes.”


But there’s still one big question: why has it taken so long to fix UHIP? Raimondo blames Deloitte.


“It’s not like we were doing nothing. We just weren’t doing enough fast enough. Because we had been led to believe by Deloitte that they were on it, they were fixing it, that it was getting better.”


In an emailed statement, Deloitte told Rhode Island Public Radio they deeply regret "that the new system has caused frustration and hardship" and that they will "continue to enhance the team as needed and work collaboratively with the State to make things right." 


That could take time. The Governor says it will take up to a year and a half to get UHIP running smoothly.


What’s more, the system won’t deliver the savings promised in the near future. 


The new report provides something of a road map for fixing problems in the short and long term. But some Rhode Islanders are skeptical it’s thorough enough.