Public assistance modernization stalls

Stan Soloway

Many states are looking for ways to modernize the administration of public assistance programs, including food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid and child health insurance programs. Among other things, these initiatives seek to combine the common elements of various assistance programs into a unified process, expand the use of information technology for processing and make the process more user-friendly.

Unfortunately, the Farm, Nutrition and Bioenergy Act of 2007, passed by the House July 27, contains language, inserted without debate or discussion, that would prohibit states from moving down the modernization path with support from the private sector ? even though the private sector is where the bulk of the requisite technology capability lies. The prohibition is driven by one overriding issue: modernization may mean fewer processing centers and employees. And that does not sit well with the public employee unions.

After all, the states are not outsourcing eligibility determinations. That responsibility remains with state employees. Nor are they playing fast and loose with applicants' personal data. In Indiana, for example, the companies involved must have extensive security protocols, including encryption and password-protected files. Moreover, every company employee who comes in contact with personal data is required to sign a nondisclosure agreement ? the violation of which is a criminal act.

No one asked state governors what they thought of the bill. However, seven felt compelled to weigh in with a letter asking Congress not to overly restrict their ability ? and right ? to manage their state's affairs. And no one polled the assistance recipients to see if they support prohibiting initiatives that might reduce the amount of time they stand in lines or the number of mostly duplicative forms they must fill out and submit. Marguerite Kondracke, who leads the national service group America's Promise, said recently that efforts to unify some applications for assistance and child health insurance programs were short-circuited because of opposition from public employee unions.

In a similar vein, the House-passed version of the fiscal 2008 Defense Authorization bill contains a broad prohibition against outsourcing any functions at Defense Department medical facilities, playing off the now discredited perception that the debacle at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was somehow related to outsourcing, which it wasn't. Congress ? again without discussion or debate ? also recently passed a prohibition on outsourcing any functions at the Mine Safety and Health Administration. This was in reaction to a Labor Department contract award to a Virginia-based small, 8(a) firm that partially encompassed some MSHA activities. After the Senate action, Labor folded its tent and canceled the entire contract, even though the MSHA portion amounted to only 20 percent of the work. The department also refused to compensate the company for its costs, contending that such circumstances are simply a risk of doing business with the federal government.

The prohibition on state modernization of assistance programs is solely about protecting public employee jobs even when doing so is a disservice to the governors, recipients of assistance and ? because the federal government pays half of the administrative costs for these programs ? all taxpayers. The remarkable intrusion on state management is especially egregious. For nearly 40 years, governors have had the leeway to waive certain restrictions in their administration of assistance programs when they deemed that to be in their state's best interests. The farm bill provision overturns that longstanding precedent and, in so doing, virtually ensures that states will find it far more difficult and expensive to modernize and improve service delivery.

In the end, the farm bill provision is a sad example of how the emphasis on modernizing and improving government performance that began in the Clinton administration can easily be shunted aside ? with no debate or discussion ? for good old-fashioned politics. It's nothing short of a national travesty.

Stan Soloway is president of the Professional Services Council; his e-mail is

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