Rhode Island Lawmakers Rebuke Vendor, Officials Over Healthcare Troubles

Criticism occurred an hour into the hearing, which was held jointly by the House Finance and Oversight committees.

by Alisha A. Pina, The Providence Journal, R.I. / November 29, 2016

(TNS) — PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For the second time, legislators on Monday interrogated the leaders in charge of the state’s new $364-million human service benefits computer system — and all the problems that have surfaced since it was launched in mid-September.

Criticism of the largest vendor and builder, Deloitte Consulting, occurred an hour into the hearing, which was held jointly by the House Finance and Oversight committees. The first hearing about the Unified Healthcare Infrastructure Project (UHIP), which is officially called RI Bridges, lasted for four hours in October. Monday's hearing was just shy of three hours long.

"I’d fire them," said Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, who started by complimenting what he said are the positive strides made so far to improve UHIP. "We're talking about getting rid of [DMV vendor Hewlett Packard Enterprise] for $13 million. This is $364 million. This isn't someone's car getting registered. This is whether or not someone gets insulin. This is whether or not someone gets long-term care."

He added that instead of fixing the technical problems and getting to the underlying issues, Deloitte has put in place their staff, "work-around" measures and computer tricks to temporarily Band-Aid the glitches.

Describing it as "programming malpractice," and Deloitte as "grossly negligent," Chippendale said, "I don’t find this acceptable."

Appearing before the legislators were Health and Human Services Secretary Elizabeth Roberts, Department of Administration Director Michael DiBiase and Department of Human Services Director Melba Depena Affigne.

"That is not the way the system is supposed to work," DiBiase said regarding the work-arounds, "but that is the way we need to do business while these technology fixes are happening."

The three officials, who declined to give Deloitte a performance letter grade when Chippendale requested it, said no one from the firm was present. A Deloitte official was at the first meeting but wasn't asked any questions. Chippendale said he expects someone from the firm to attend the next hearing.

Comments made by the Oversight Committee chairwoman, Rep. Patricia Serpa, D-West Warwick, were geared more toward the decisions made by the state officials, such as laying off "seasoned" staff at the same time a "complicated" new computer system was introduced and significantly changing some of the business practices. Fifteen social workers and supervisors were laid off, and another 30 were moved to other departments in October.

"It frankly sets up a perfect storm for failure," Serpa said. "I'm still not convinced we are there yet, but there will be more meetings."

Other questions involved whether Deloitte staff has confidential information from state human services data banks, how much training there was for state employees involved with the new system, whether new human services hires connected with UHIP were properly chosen, the cost of staff overtime related to UHIP problems and security audits of the new system.

"The employees told you a month ago, two months ago, they needed more training and this system was very unfriendly," said Rep. William O’Brien, D-North Providence, after learning additional training began Monday. "And you ignored them."

Depena Affigne, DiBiase and Robert said fixing UHIP was their "highest priority," and discussed what they would do differently if they could, such as, Roberts said, paying more attention to making timely payments to nursing homes for patients in the human services system. They told the legislators what has been done so far with UHIP and what's left to do.

"This is a big problem, period," Rep. Marvin Abney, D-Newport, the House Finance chairman said before adjourning the meeting. "When leaders face tough problems, they find a way to get the job done. I know we have good leadership in this state, and I know the three of you are working good leadership positions, but at some point and at some time, you all are going to have to step up to the plate and make some really tough decisions."

"We're dealing with people's lives here," Abney said. "That's why you are getting so many questions here."

©2016 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.