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^. < State workers protest outside the Austin public hearing. All photos by Dave Mann CAPITOL OFFENSES Who You Gonna Call? Texas' welfare state endures a hostile corporate takeover BY DAVE MANN April 30th was billed as the day that thousands of state health and human services workers would have a chance to speak out against a state proposal to abolish their jobs. The state is planning to shutter more than 200 local social services offices and lay off thousands of enroll ment workers in favor of three privately run call centers. Poor Texans will presumably enroll in government assistance programs much like they would buy an encyclopedia set off latenight television. This is one of the most controversial portions of the unprecedented overhaul of the Texas welfare system that passed last year. In the next five months, state officials will finish scrunching 12 health and human service departments into four heavily privatized mega-agencies. The reorganization is the handiwork of right-wing state lawmakers and their handpicked administrators who seem determined to morph the state's safety net into a money-saving pseudo-corporation. It's as if Texas has handed over its government healthcare system to Wal-Mart. State enrollment workers were afforded at least one chance to be heard. Administrators scheduled 10 simultaneous public hearings around the state on April 30 to glean input from state workers. Hundreds of workers took the afternoon off work to attend. In reality, however, they didn't get much of a say. Many key decisions had been made weeks before. In closed-door meetings, state administrators had fashioned the call-center plan with private contractors from some of the very companies that potentially could benefit from the new system they're helping to design. Since October of last year, a group of 24 state health officials and private contractors has gathered almost every week for meetings at the Austin headquarters of the Health and Human Services recast the way poor and vulnerable Texans enroll in programs such as Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, food stamps, and welfare cash assistance. Currently, latching on to the government rolls requires a visit to one of about 380 Department of Human Services offices, where a state worker determines whether you're eligible for government assistance and then helps you enroll. By most accounts, the system, while far from perfect, functions serviceably. During the 2003 legislative session, however, state lawmakers decided that system had to go. They passed a sprawling that cut numerous services and privatized several others to fit a vision of limited government [see "Legislative Malpractice," June 20, 2003]. In the name of greater efficiency, the legislation ordered state officials to examine scrapping the current eligibility and enrollment system in favor of three or four privately run call centers. No state in the country has ever employed call centers to such an extent or completely privatized such a core government function. It's a massive undertaking, 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5/21/04