Last Thursday, after almost three years of missteps that interrupted vital services for some, Gov. Mitch Daniels admitted the welfare-privatization concept didnt work and canceled the contract with IBM.
The governor deserves credit for owning up to the failure. His persistence in getting problems fixed in the Bureau of Motor Vehicles suggests he will now redouble efforts to improve services provided through the Family and Social Services Administration. We wish him only success.
In December 2006, this page warned that the states $1.16 billion contract to privatize its welfare-eligibility system threatened the fragile safety net that protects thousands of Indianas most vulnerable citizens: Indianas citizens need to see past the happy talk about the 1,000 new jobs that IBM promises to bring and super-computer equipment for Indiana and Purdue universities and understand that this change could be devastating to hundreds of thousands of people who dont have anywhere else to turn.
Thats precisely what happened. Now, as the state begins to repair the system, its important not to overlook the lessons the IBM deal offers:
Listen to critics. Those who questioned the 10-year contract warned that a similar effort in Texas had failed miserably and that replacing state-employed case workers with call center employees would not work.
Welfare services are not comparable to BMV services. Interruptions in Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families can threaten lives; a delay in mailing a license plate will not.
FSSA clients are not welfare cheats who should find jobs. The agency serves the elderly, people with mental and physical disabilities and tens of thousands of children. They never asked for the convenience of online applications; they need the help of caseworkers trained to recognize their complex needs and guide them through the system.
Government performs some functions better than the private sector. Eliminating abuses does not justify disrupting the entire system.
While the governor took responsibility for the deal, its undoing calls into question the oversight lawmakers exercised over the largest contract in state history. Except for a handful of legislators – Republican Sen. Vaneta Becker, Republican Rep. Suzanne Crouch and Democratic Reps. Peggy Welch, Gail Riecken and Bill Crawford – there were few questions asked along the way.
Late last week, Republican legislators rushed to praise the governor for his action, with no acknowledgment of the uncertainty and heartache experienced by some Hoosiers in the past three years. News releases from GOP Reps. Matt Bell, Randy Borror, Jeff Espich, Dick Dodge, Dan Leonard and Matt Lehman extolled the governors leadership. Interestingly, not a single one supported a bill sponsored by Crawford to tighten restrictions on the FSSA contractors. It passed the House by a 53-45 vote and died in committee in the Senate.
Welfare recipients are an easy constituency to overlook. They dont contribute to political campaigns or hire lobbyists to argue their causes. But a state that overlooks its most vulnerable residents will never move ahead. In repairing the system, care must be taken to ensure they receive the services they need and deserve.