Child Support Systems Face Reform Challenge

Information systems will undergo radical overhauls at the state and local levels to accommodate welfare reform

Information systems are expected to undergo radical overhauls at the state and local levels to accommodate the complex changes wrought by sweeping welfare reform legislation, infotech industry observers say.

As part of the welfare reform bill signed in August by President Bill Clinton, the federal government is expected to allocate $400 million, which will be matched by state and local governments, to fund systems integration efforts to link automation initiatives launched over the past 10 years. The allocation will focus on upgrading and integrating legacy systems that bolster child support enforcement administration.

It is widely acknowledged that welfare reform has already spurred, and will continue to spur, deep levels of spending by state and local governments to facilitate the sweeping policy changes mandated by the legislation.

A recent study released by Andersen Consulting, Chicago, shows that states have been upgrading their computer systems to facilitate welfare reform. In a survey of 151 state government human service leaders from 49 states, 83 percent of those polled said their agency already is, or will soon be, addressing welfare reform. Some 75 percent of agency leaders polled indicated they are managing the redesign of their existing processes. Some 79 percent of respondents reported they are already updating or integrating their computer systems.

Robert Teklits, chief information officer of the Colorado Department of Human Services, said welfare reform is providing direction to Colorado on the design of the state's information systems that support welfare program administration. "We knew beforehand we would have to be in position to deal with welfare reform. We have to build systems that will help us implement the new policy," he said.

Prior to the Aug. 22 enactment of the welfare reform legislation, Teklits said, the Colorado state government had already approved two major infotech studies that will eventually recommend a redesign of the state's welfare system infotech infrastructure. "From a technical perspective, the mainframe dumb terminal models are what we're trying to get away from. We're looking to client/server computing systems as a solution," he said.

Teklits said the $400 million federal allocation to unite state and local legacy systems will prove beneficial to Colorado and other states. "We will certainly participate in that effort," he said.

But Teklits added the states are still left with the task of developing and coordinating a benefits tracking system that will ensure recipient compliance with the five-year limit on lifetime welfare assistance.

Teklits said effective benefits tracking will require the creation of a national database shared by the states to protect them against fraud by welfare recipients moving from state to state. "How do you track the clients? We need some common approach and direction. There is nothing in the legislation that deals with this question," Teklits said.

Connie Brines, manager of social services at Oracle Government in Bethesda, Md., said welfare reform will generate significant opportunity for infotech companies. "Oracle wants to be the technology of choice under welfare reform," she said of her company's efforts to win business.

Brines said the $400 million commitment is "considered too low" an allocation to bring all 50 states up to date on their legacy systems for child support enforcement. A majority of states have yet to fulfill objectives of a 1988 federal child support enforcement program that required them to complete legacy system improvements, according to Brines. "For states certified in the program, the costs of integrating their legacy systems are not that high," she said.

However, Brines said the challenge of upgrading those legacy systems pales in comparison to the job states and localities face improving legacy systems for welfare programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps. "Child support enforcement changes at the local level are minor compared to what is necessary for the other programs," Brines said.

State and local governments also have the daunting task of integrating existing information systems that have traditionally been separated by individual programs. With state and local welfare programs broken down by categorical models created in Washington, funds earmarked for one program were discouraged, if not prohibited, from being mixed with funds earmarked for another program.

Rosemary Budd, director of business development at Rapid Systems Solutions, Columbia, Md., said her company is working with the state of Maryland on facilitating welfare reform. The company, which was founded in 1991 and generated $14 million in 1995, currently does less than 5 percent of its business in state and local markets, according to Budd.

Budd said working with Maryland state officials on developing a welfare reform strategy can lead to systems integration contracts on which Rapid Systems Solutions can build its state and local practices.

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