CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – The special master appointed to oversee Rhode Island’s troubled UHIP benefits eligibility computer system has ordered the state to hire an outside vendor to support the Department of Human Services’ call center.
According to the order obtained by Target 12, Special Master Deming Sherman has “determined that it is necessary to accelerate the addition of staffing assistance at the Call Center and related back office functions in order to promote the timeliness of processing SNAP applications as soon as possible.” (SNAP is the food assistance program previously known as food stamps.)
The agency’s call center receives about 10,000 calls weekly. DHS Director Courtney Hawkins acknowledged wait times are often too long for callers seeking assistance.
“We’re making a number of improvements in the call center that will take a longer time that will use DHS staff, so in the meantime he wants us to think about some short-term things we can implement to provide for more immediate relief for customers,” Hawkins said in an interview Tuesday morning.
“People shouldn’t wait for two hours to talk to someone at DHS, and if there are things we can do to move the process more quickly, we should,” she added.
DHS is considering several vendors, but Hawkins said it is too early to estimate how much the cost will be.
“We’re going to be looking to do this as efficiently as we possibly can,” Hawkins said. “Costs will be included in our future IAPD submission to the federal government, and we’ll be looking for reimbursement there if we can.” (IAPD is short for Implementation Advance Planning Document, the federal budgeting document for projects like UHIP.)
Sherman’s order requires that the outside vendor be used for at least 120 days. The plan has to be approved by the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service, the federal agency that oversees food stamps.
Full staffing in the call center is about 30 employees, but Hawkins says retaining workers has been a challenge.
“We’ve had a number of vacancies in the call center because it’s our hardest work,” she explained. “What we’re working on now is figuring out how to incentivize staff to want to work in the call center by making that a higher level position for people.”
The starting salary for a call center employee is about $42,000, according to a DHS spokesperson.
Since its launch in September 2016, UHIP has been plagued with technical problems that have affected benefits and medical coverage for tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders. The system’s cost is approaching a half-billion dollars. Gov. Gina Raimondo has stopped payment to the company building the system, Deloitte, due to the problems.
Issues with SNAP benefits have prompted the ACLU to file a lawsuit against the state, alleging illegal delays caused by the system. A judge appointed Sherman in November to try and find solutions to the problems. Sherman is paid $300 an hour for his work.
In his most recent report on March 1, Sherman said DHS has made progress in recent months in improving the timeliness of SNAP application processing but more needs to be done. He also said Deloitte is working on “a major fix” to the system that will be finalized around May 19.