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CARES: A Massive Technology Failure Costing Taxpayers Tens of Millions

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—Under the banner of “streamlining government,” Governor Robert Bentley issued Executive Order 44 on June 30, 2014. EO44 combined various agencies into one software system to administer and enroll individuals, in state and federal benefit programs such as, Medicaid, children’s services, public health and senior programs.

After two years, with between $20 to $40 million dollars in both federal and state taxpayer money being squandered, the program known as CARES does not work. Not only is the system not working, but the actual cost of the project is not known by the agencies footing the bills. Among the many troubling aspects of the project are budget overruns, software incompatibility, a poisonous work environment and extremely poor leadership, according to an internal review obtained by the Alabama Political Reporter.

SEE REVIEW

CARES is an acronym for Centralized Alabama Recipient Eligibility System Project, once believed that after its implementation, it would allow state agencies to interact with individuals who qualify for state and federal benefits. CARES falls under Dr. Joanne Hale, Acting Secretary of Information Technology. Appointed by Governor Bentley on January 4, 2016, Hale is responsible for leading the State’s Information Technology policy, planning, and governance efforts.

A management assessment of the CARES project on July 16, 2016, found that various software purchased were incompatible, the project atmosphere was “toxic” and that only one manager acknowledged responsibility for “lack of acceptable results.”

According to a two-year-old web posting, “CARES is a Web-based Enterprise system designed to support multiple agencies and programs in a highly-automated enrollment and eligibility process.”

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The project plan’s statement of work estimated a start date of November 3, 2014, with completion by September 30, 2016. However, according to the latest findings, the system is inoperable.

The agencies scheduled to implement the CARES system are:

Alabama Medicaid Agency

Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH)

Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR)

Alabama Department of Mental Health

Alabama Department of Senior Services.

Programs under these agencies include:

ADPH’s ALLKids (Alabama’s Subsidized Health Insurance Program)

Medicaid’s SOBRA, PlanFirst and Elderly and Disabled services

DHR’s SNAP (Food Assistance)

TANG Subsidized Child Care

Not only do these programs provide essential services to needy citizens, most operate using federal dollars, which require accurate accounting under penalty of law.

With only two months before scheduled implementation and with millions in taxpayer funds expended, the Office Information Technology (OIT) with approval from the CARES Executive Oversight Committee, appointed a “CIO Management Team” to assess the damage and offer recommendations for further action. The Management Team consists of Cheri Martin, Deputy Secretary of OIT; Regina Patterson, IT Director Alabama Department of Public Health; Marty Redden, Chief IT Officer Alabama Medicaid Agency; and Lisa Townsend, IT Director Alabama Department of Human Resources.

The CARES build-out employs over 100 individuals tasked with bringing the project online. According to the OIT website, “development effort consisting of state agencies, state universities and colleges and various vendors from the Alabama Professional Services contract.”

Shannon Crane began as project manager, assisted by deputy project manager Chris Sims. Sims is a contractor working for GDH Government. There are some five other companies supplying staff to the project, with GDH Government supplying 60 (out of 100) employees according to staffers who wish to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs.

GDH Government Service, according to its website, offers technology solutions for state, local and federal government.

Bloomberg lists it as a privately held company founded in 2010, to provide professional service solutions in Information Technology and Business Management specifically to government entities.

GDH Government Service Montgomery is located in the RSA building, on North Union Street.

Several employees have expressed concerns over offices (particularly management) of being extravagant and a borderline abuse of taxpayer dollars.

More disturbing are workers’ fears that management has instructed them to post “fake” documents submitted to the federal government as project documentation on its SharePoint site.

According to internal documents, the system components are a Citizen Portal for individual use by those using government services and a Worker Portal for those administering services. For example, an individual applying for Medicaid can sign-up by using the Citizen Portal. Using the Worker Portal the agency would verify the applicant’s eligibility and benefits.

In the OIT Management Team report, they expressed “very few concerns” regarding the products used to develop the Citizen Portal but many concerns regarding the Worker Portal.”

The assessment states, “The technology used for the two portals is different, and the restrictions of the CRM tool used for the Worker Portal make it more difficult to use and much more difficult to customize and maintain.”

Those building portions of the project say they use Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM for development. Reportedly, the project bought 5,000 licenses at a cost to the State of around $4 million. But insider’s claim they are only using around 300.

Those inside the project claim OIT’s Martin demanded and approved the purchase of a Microsoft CRM software, and that she authorized payment for $1 million in new licensing or maintenance fees for the project this year, despite knowing that the software is unusable for health care enrollment. They also claim after the disclosure of the software boondoggle, Martin is throwing “everyone else under the bus” to protect her job.

The assessment team’s technical review of the program’s software “deepened the initial concerns with the CRM tool and led to more extensive questions about the system architecture.” They discovered “several products that, taken as a whole, could adversely affect system stability, performance, sustainability, scalability, and maintainability.” The report concluded the overall database structure in their judgment was, “overly complicated and raised concerns with data reliability.”

The report paints a picture of a project management team who “did not seem to recognize the severity of the situation, with only one manager acknowledging, ‘responsibility for lack of acceptable results.” The review also revealed a lack of focus on what was needed by the agencies with “too much focus on project culture, methodology, and processes.”

The four-person panel recommended replacing the Program Director. It also called for the elimination of Deputy Program Director, PMO Program Manager, and Lead Business Analyst.

Keith Wright, with ADPH, is Interim Program Director for 90 days and Jim Richardson, a contractor with Medicaid, will be assigned full-time to provide general and technical support with Lisa Townsend, DHR, providing methodology support as needed.

When confronted with the facts on the failed STAARS system, Gov. Bentley doubled down on the program, refusing to hold those at the top accountable. Recently, a request for emergency funding to complete the STAARS program was issued, despite $47 million initial cost.

A joint legislative committee established during the Special Session will conduct inquiries into such spending. Bentley may again work to protect cabinet loyalists from being held responsible.

In light of this latest revelation of taxpayer funds being wasted by the administration, perhaps lawmakers will do what Bentley has proven he is unwilling to do.

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