Bill would slow rollout of Indiana welfare changes-WEB ONLY

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A Republican lawmaker has defied Gov. Mitch Daniels and filed a bill to slow the rollout of Indiana’s new welfare intake system, but the leader of the GOP-controlled state Senate is skeptical the legislation is needed.

The bill by Rep. Suzanne Crouch, R-Evansville, would stop the Family and Social Services Administration from automating welfare intake in any additional counties until lawmakers are satisfied that problems have been fixed in the 59 counties operating under the new system.

If it passes in the House, state Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, will carry it in the Senate.

Becker and Crouch have been two of the more outspoken legislators in criticizing how FSSA has managed the transition to the new system in which applicants for food stamps, Medicaid and other welfare benefits lose individual case workers and are encouraged to use telephone call centers, Web interfaces and fax machines to apply for and renew their eligibility for benefits.

After the changes that began nearly 15 months ago in 12 north-central counties and have since expanded to 47 others, many clients complained of lost paperwork, revoked benefits they were eligible for, lengthy telephone hold times and other problems.

Daniels, a Republican, has said his administration will not back down from the changes he insists are needed to modernize the management of Indiana 1.1 million-client welfare caseload. Crouch and Becker heard arguments against the legislation from new FSSA Secretary Anne Murphy and members of the governor’s staff, but said they had no choice.

“They certainly understand that we consider our first responsibility is representing our constituents,” Crouch told the Evansville Courier & Press.

Said Becker: “Our constituents, both of our hospitals, all of our United Way agencies, have been adamant to us to proceed with this piece of legislation.”

Daniels said he was disappointed.

“We think they are in error, but my expectation is as we move forward and fix problems that are there, they’ll feel differently – and over time this issue will resolve itself,” Daniels said.

When Crouch introduced her bill, the chairman of the House Public Health Committee, Democratic Rep. Charlie Brown of Gary, signed on as co-author. However, the bill faces more resistance in the Senate, and even if it passed there, Daniels can veto it.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long said legislation would be a step backward when FSSA has worked hard to bring needed technology to welfare intake. The agency gave a $1.16 billion, 10-year contract to automate eligibility to a team of vendors led by IBM and Affiliated Computer Services Inc. in 2006.

“I’d be very concerned about us trying to start dictating,” said Long, R-Fort Wayne. “I really want to give these efforts a chance to evolve, and I think that requires patience.”

FSSA spokeswoman Lauren Auld says clients have more opportunity to enroll under the new system. In the 59 counties where the changes are in place, clients now can apply for benefits at 413 locations with flexible hours.

“It is now easier for clients to obtain services,” Auld said.

FSSA has said its rollout of the changes to additional counties has been stymied since June by having to concentrate on delivering emergency food stamps to victims of floods and severe weather across the state.

FSSA has not set a date for more counties to receive the changes. Thirteen counties in northwestern and north central Indiana – or more likely a subgroup of those counties – are next up.

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