(TNS) -- Despite warnings from federal regulators, Rhode Island pushed forward last month with its launch of a new $364-million computer system and quickly ran into "serious issues" with the administration of public assistance, including food stamps, according to correspondence from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
One letter sent to the state in September says staff with the federal Food and Nutrition Service had noted "serious issues" with the new United Health Infrastructure Project, dubbed RIBridges, and with "business processes."
The "implementation issues may already be having a significant impact on program access and application processing times," says the Sept. 22 letter, sent to the director of the Rhode Island Department of Human Services, Melba Depena Affigne.
In early September, the administrator of the Nutrition Service’s Northeast region, Kurt Messner, had warned Depena Affigne that launching the new system without first carrying out a "live pilot" program would be "against our best advice" and also "against the intent of the regulations."
The correspondence, obtained Tuesday by The Journal, says staff with the federal agency have documented various problems since the system went live on Sept. 13, but it does not elaborate further.
Last week, the administration of Gov. Gina Raimondo acknowledged problems in making about 29,000 direct deposits to the accounts of "aged, blind and disabled persons" who qualify for $39.92 a month in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments from the state.
Other previously reported problems included: a failure to replenish some SNAP debit cards at the start of October, four- to five-hour waits at a regional office last week, and at least one daycare center that missed an $8,000 payment.
A spokeswoman for Depena Affigne, Ashley G. O’Shea, said the Food and Nutrition Service had expressed concerns about the state’s plans, "but at no time did they instruct us to stop the launch of the system on Sept. 13."
On Sept. 2, in advance of the rollout, Messner notified Depena Affigne in writing that the system had "a number of high-level defects," that staff were not ready for the transition and that the program had "no defined process to handle reported data conflicts."
The potential consequences included reduced program access, delayed processing of applications, late benefits, and increased payment errors, he wrote.
"... FNS wishes DHS to know that it proceeds with the deployment of RIBridges at its own risk," says the letter, which was followed by a Sept. 6 letter that says the state's "transition plan remains inadequate and unacceptable" and planned launch will put the state out of compliance with federal regulations.
The RIBridges system is the product of an effort to replace an assortment of decades-old computer systems with a new system to handle a full universe of health and human services data, from food aid to state supplemental social security to Medicaid and the health insurance exchange HealthSource RI.
The data in the system is supposed to help the state deliver millions of dollars to an estimated 318,000 Rhode Islanders.
With reports from Katherine Gregg
©2016 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.