Page 31


EDITORIAL Bermuda Triangle Afew months ago, strange faxes began arriving at a warehouse in Seattle. The documents were pay stubs, tax statements, medi cal formsall sent by Texans applying for state benefit programs like Medicaid, food stamps, and the Children’s Health in Seattle were understandably baffled. Poor people in Texas, meanwhile, couldn’t figure out why the state hadn’t processed their applications for government aid. It turned out that a private contractorrecently hired by the state to process applications for social service programslisted two fax numbers; one was incorrect. When poor and elderly applicants used that number, their documents would disappear into what state officials began referring to as the “black hole.” The delicious details of this story were reported in early June by Polly Ross Hughes in the Houston Chronicle. The error was a small one, affecting at most a few hundred people in a system that serves millions. But it’s a handy example of everything that’s wrong with Texas’ attempt to privatize its delivery of social services. The centerpiece of this privatization effort is a five-year, $899 million dealthe largest such government con tract in Texas historythat the state awarded last year to a coalition led by the Bermuda-based consulting firm Accenture. The contract grew out of legislation passed in 2003 by Republican lawmakers. It would revolutionize the way the state screens and enrolls millions of poor and elderly Texans in benefit programs such as Medicaid, CHIP, and food stamps. Under the plan, the current system in which thousands of state workers at hundreds of local offices around the state screen and enroll needy Texans would be replaced by a private system of call centers and Internetscreening. Thankfully, the change-over was scheduled to be done piecemeal. At this point, Accenture has taken over a handful of tasks: enrollment for CHIP and Children’s Medicaid statewide, and for all benefit programs in a few pilot areas of the state. But already it’s a mess. Documents are getting lost \(if not sent too long, eligible kids are denied benefits, people are losing coverage for no reason. Heckuva job, guys. The impact of these gaffes is evident in the CHIP and Medicaid rolls. As we’ve written before, CHIP enrollment has plummeted every month since September 2003, when GOP budget cuts and administrative barriers went into effect. The number of kids on CHIP dropped from about 500,000 in 2003 to 330,000 last summer, when the decline began to level off. Then, last December, Accenture took over enrollment for CHIP and children’s Medicaid \(for convenience, the two health insurance programs use the same applicahas nose dived by about 10 percent to 295,000 kids. In Medicaid, 79,000 children have lost coverage since December. Social service advocates blame these rapid declines on bungled privatization. As proof, they point to the percentage of families renewing CHIP or children’s Medicaid coverage. Prior to December, the CHIP renewal rate was about 80 percent each month. After Accenture took over in December, the rate dropped to 50 percent and hasn’t risen much since. Children’s Medicaid, which covers 1.1 million kids and shrinking, has experienced a similar trend. Those numbers show a privatized system that simply isn’t enrolling poor children who are eligible for much-needed governmentsponsored health insurance. Remember that kids with health insurance lead much healthier lives. State officials have pledged to rectify the problems in their clumsy stab at privatization. We hope it’s fixable. Right now they’re making FEMA look like a model of efficiency. THE TEXAS OBSERVER I VOLUME 98, NO. 12 I A Journal of Free Voices Since 1954 Founding Editor Ronnie Dugger Executive Editor Jake Bernstein Editor Barbara Belejack Associate Editor Dave Mann Publisher Charlotte McCann Associate Publisher Julia Austin Circulation Manager Lara George Art Director/Webmaster Matt Omohundro Poetry Editor Naomi Shihab Nye Copy Editors Rusty Todd, Laurie Baker Staff Writers Forrest Wilder, Tim Eaton Editorial Interns Rachel Mehendale, Victoria Rodriguez, Kelly Sharp, Richard Whittaker Contributing Writers Nate Blakeslee, Gabriela Bocagrande, Robert Bryce, Michael Erard, James K. Galbraith, Dagoberto Gilb, Steven G. Kellman, Lucius Lomax, James McWilliams, Char Miller, Debbie Nathan, Karen Olsson, John Ross, Andrew Wheat Staff Photographers Alan Pogue, Jana Birchum, Steve Satterwhite Contributing Artists Sam Hurt, Kevin Kreneck, Michael Krone, Gary Oliver, Doug Potter Editorial Advisory Board David Anderson, Chandler Davidson, Dave Denison, Sissy Farenthold, Lawrence Goodwyn, Jim Hightower, Kaye Northcott, Susan Reid Texas Democracy Foundation Board Lou Dubose, Molly Ivins, Susan Hays, D’Ann Johnson, Jim Marston, Gilberto Ocafias, Bernard Rapoport, Geoffrey Rips, Sharron Rush, Ronnie Dugger In Memoriam Bob Eckhardt, 1913-2001, Cliff Olofson, 1931-1995 The Texas Observer \(ISSN 0040-4519/ righted 2006, is published biweekly except during January and August when there is a 4 week break between non-profit foundation, 307 West 7th Street, Austin, Texas 78701. Telephone E-mail [email protected] World Wide Web DownHome page . Periodicals Postage paid at Austin, TX and at additional mailing offices. Subscriptions One year $32, two years $59, three years $84. Full-time students $18 per year; add $13 per year for foreign subs. Back issues $3 prepaid. Airmail, foreign, group, and bulk rates on request. Microfilm available from University Microfilms Intl., 300 N. Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48106. Indexes The Texas Observer is indexed in Access: The Supplementary Index to Periodicals; Texas Index and, for the years 1954 through 1981, The Texas Observer Index. POSTMASTER Send address changes to: The Texas Observer, 307 West 7th Street, Austin, Texas 78701. Books & the Culture is funded in part by the City of Austin through the Cultural Arts Division and by a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts. Csatei.i Acsa: 133Pitiax, JUNE 16, 2006 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3