using call centers, rather than walk-in offices, for processing requests for benefits.

 

Signs of Trouble

According to a report published in April by HHSC Inspector General Brian Flood, the young TIERS program suffered hiccups during its pilot phase: longer case entry times and the inability to create certain case history reports necessary for federal compliance.

Despite these early problems, the HHSC needed a data management system to support the new call-center model of doing business. HHSC officials had to choose between using SAVERR, TIERS or a vendor's proprietary call-center software. The call centers became a wild card that seriously complicated the TIERS changeover.

SAVERR worked, but the agency had already been directed to find a replacement, and the technology was quickly becoming outdated and unsupportable. TIERS - developed for the state by Deloitte Consulting LLP - was still a work in progress, but the HHSC had invested more than five years and a few hundred million dollars in the program. Neither SAVERR nor TIERS was designed to work in a call center; both were built with in-person interviews in mind, Goodman said.

According to Flood's report, the HHSC considered allowing the call center contractor to use its own software to calculate eligibility when the contract was awarded, but managers decided they'd rather control the data management tool so they wouldn't be forced to remain with a given vendor to run the call centers.

The HHSC decided to stick with TIERS and try to get it running smoothly in time for the call center rollout. TIERS needed to be tweaked to fit this new demand however. For example, the data entry fields were shrunk to fewer pages because the condensed format makes more sense for taking information over the phone.

Even before being adapted to call centers, TIERS was very complicated, and both Flood's report and a separate federal audit found that the program had serious design flaws as an eligibility-processing tool.

Still, when the HHSC submitted a plan for the changeover with the federal Food and Nutrition Service, which provides the state money for food stamps, the state commission said it would push ahead with TIERS. Based on what HHSC officials were learning from the TIERS pilot, the agency already had a full plate, and the move to call centers complicated the program further.

 

A Growing Behemoth

Yet, officials continued to add functions to the program. When the HHSC was reorganized to include a handful of other state services, management decided to let TIERS power as much of the agency's work as possible, according to Flood's report, and TIERS grew into a benefits-calculating behemoth. "The project was so large and tech-driven that some of the business needs were not properly designed into the system," Flood said.

Goodman contends the HHSC has handled deployment of the sprawling program just fine, but she agrees it's a big job. "It's like remodeling a house with 4 million people, and they're still living in it," she said.

Accenture LLP won the contract to operate the new call centers in 2005, and the HHSC handed the company the contract for running TIERS as well. The program still needed work, but to speed things along, the HHSC cut off its contract with Deloitte and handed Accenture the job of fixing TIERS, along with starting up the call centers. Accenture eventually contracted some of the work of fixing and modifying TIERS back to Deloitte, at a hefty cost to the HHSC, according to Flood's report.

Accenture Senior Executive Dave McCurley said the project's biggest problems didn't arise from the scale of the program, but from how little wiggle room the company had - due to detailed laws at the state and federal level, and a

Patrick Michels  |  Contributing Writer
Patrick Michels is based in San Francisco and Austin, Texas. He writes for Government Technology, Texas Technology and Emergency Management magazines.