Some Coloradans can’t access food and medical benefits due to glitches in new state system

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Glitches in a new computer system that manages benefits for low-income Colorado families have caused backlogs and long lines inside county offices as people struggle to get important medication, food assistance and even bus passes.

The Governor’s Office of Information Technology, which has worked on the project for nearly two years, has said the revolutionary new system, which relies on cloud technology, will greatly simplify the user experience.

But multiple counties around metro Denver have reported problems during the rollout that won’t allow human services workers to process applications for benefits like Medicaid and SNAP, the food assistance program for low-income individuals.

The glitches have caused some low-income residents around the state to wonder when they might get their asthma medication, bus pass or food assistance for the month.

Lakewood resident Natasha Cordero was at the Jefferson County Department of Human Services Wednesday morning trying to enroll her daughter in Medicaid. The girl relies on the government program to get Albuterol, the drug that goes into inhalers. Right now, she goes to school without an inhaler, hoping to avoid a serious asthma attack.

“It’s definitely scary and frustrating,” Cordero said. “We’re in a tough spot now.”

In Jefferson County, human services officials said the system has been going on and off at random since it went live on Aug. 27. On Tuesday, the first day of service for September, more than 50 people waited in line for answers.

“We try to do same-day service where you come in and you leave with your EBT card,” Wanda Cowart, division director for the county’s Human Services department, said about the benefits card. “We’re not able to do that right now.”

Pharmacy director Hank Wedemeyer looks up ...
John Moore, Getty Images

In this 2012 file photo pharmacy director Hank Wedemeyer looks up records while filling a prescription at a community health center in Aurora. At that point the center, called the Metro Community Provider Network, has received some 6,000 more Medicaid eligible patients since the healthcare reform law was passed in 2010.

Broomfield County said the new system has been slower at times, but it hasn’t greatly impacted their services.

David McCurdy, chief technology officer for the Office of Information Technology, said his team has heard about a few issues but the platform has remained mostly stable. The state has a command center where counties can report issues, and the technology team will work on fixes.

“For the size of this system, I think we’re in a good place,” McCurdy said, adding that he hopes to have the majority of the issues smoothed out by Friday at the latest.

The Colorado Benefits Management System is run through county human services offices and manages medical and food-assistance benefits for everyone in Colorado. In Colorado, more than 1.3 million people receive Medicaid, and nearly 450,000 receive SNAP benefits, according to Department of Human Services data.

Since its 2004 inception, advocates have complained about eligibility glitches that have caused life-threatening problems for low-income people. In 2009, advocates blamed a computer error in a 9-year-old boy’s death. His mother was unable to fill his asthma medication prescription because the computer said he was not covered by Medicaid.

Lynnae Flora, deputy director for Jefferson County’s human services, said she believes the new platform will be much better than the old one — once the state sorts out the issues.

But for department staff, the rollout has caused a lot of stress.

“Our squeeze balls broke!” Flora said her staff members told her in a meeting Wednesday.

“We know it’s going to get better,” Flora said. “And having been through this in other iterations over the last two decades, this is actually not nearly as bad as other times.”

Officials in Arapahoe County said their team is working overtime to process a backlog of applications caused by the glitches.

“It’s just been a headache on our end for our staff trying to jump through these hurdles to deliver services,” Yvette Yeon, spokeswoman for the county human services department, said. “The people who are suffering are those families and individuals who come to us for public assistance.”

Walter Sasse,a Lakewood resident, relies on human services for Medicaid, food assistance and his monthly bus pass. On Sept. 1, he didn’t receive his benefits.

“He depends on that money,” Bev Vigil, Sasse’s ex-wife, said. She drove from Thornton to bring Sasse to the Golden office on Wednesday because he doesn’t have other transportation options. “What is he supposed to do until they fix it?”

Vigil and Sasse left the building agitated, without answers. And without benefits.

“Low-income people are always being disserviced,” Vigil said. “There’s a lack of empathy from the state.”