Pennsylvania working to correct upgrade to welfare benefit applications

| Monday, July 28, 2014, 11:24 p.m.

Pennsylvania is one of nearly a dozen states working to correct problems stemming from a federally mandated computer upgrade that now allows online applications for welfare benefits.

The upgrades — which welfare caseworkers say open the door to fraud and the possibility that some benefits could be cut off accidentally — are required by the federal Affordable Care Act.

Officials said the upgrades are needed to handle traffic generated by Americans who are directed to state welfare offices to apply for Obamacare-related programs.

Furthermore, they say, as the size of the nation's older population increases, more people may need public assistance.

Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare acknowledges that there are problems with the upgrades but expects they soon will be resolved, spokeswoman Kait Gillis said.

“Technology is not perfect,” Gillis said.

Gillis said the system failed to accurately calculate services some clients receive from multiple sources, such as veterans' pensions and Social Security. Caseworkers look at an applicant's income from all sources when determining whether they qualify for welfare benefits and how much money they will receive.

Gillis cited one example of the problems: If three people live in one residence and each receives five payments from various sources, the system can't process the information and locks up.

But “that doesn't mean clients will not receive benefits,” she said.

Joanne Sessa of the Service Employees International Union, representing caseworkers using the updated system, said she is concerned about a systemwide meltdown.

“If those glitches aren't corrected, I envision the darn computer just blowing up,” Sessa said. “A lot of citizens of this state won't receive the benefits they are entitled to. I see a total disaster.”

The Commonwealth is one of at least 11 states experiencing difficulties with the upgrades:

• Colorado's network issued $26 million in food stamps to ineligible applicants and withheld $11 million from qualified families. The system mistakenly cut off benefits to nearly 69 percent of the state's eligible households.

• In October, people in 17 states could not use food stamp debit cards when a routine test of backup systems during a computer upgrade resulted in system failure.

• Oregon's computer network failed to process applications correctly, delaying welfare payments and food stamps to thousands of families.

• Glitches in North Carolina's network in March delayed welfare benefits and food stamps for weeks.

Despite a rocky start, Colorado's technical problems “were resolved in short order,” said Tauna Lockhart, spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Information Technology. The state's network, which includes more than 961,000 clients, is “much improved, more efficient, effective,” Lockhart said.

In New Jersey, paper applications overwhelmed caseworkers when a computer system upgrade promised for several years was unable to process a high volume of applications for health insurance.

Human Services Department spokeswoman Nicole Brossoie said those problems are being addressed.

An analysis of 16 states — Pennsylvania included — by the Council on Economic Advisers estimates the upgrades will save states a combined $3 billion to $4 billion annually.

Pennsylvania's welfare department administers programs for more than 2.8 million citizens, ranging from cash, food and medical assistance to programs for children and adults with special needs.

The system upgrades include linking the department to other agencies from which applicants might receive payments, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and the state lottery.

Caseworkers worry that beginning this week when welfare applications will be accepted online, the public will experience the same frustration and delays they have seen.

They say there is no replacement for face-to-face interaction with applicants, during which many caseworkers sniff out possible fraud.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or

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