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Tech Challenges Complicate California's COVID-19 Response

In recent years, technological challenges have made waves across California state government as officials tried to navigate aging technology and new implementations. Then came the COVID-19 crisis.

by Sophia Bollag and Michael Wilner, The Sacramento Bee / August 12, 2020

(TNS) — Before he became California governor last year, Gavin Newsom built his reputation as a tech-savvy Bay Area politician, who wrote a book arguing government should follow Silicon Valley’s lead and embrace new technology.

But five months into the biggest crisis of his governorship, technology problems have become major stumbling blocks to his coronavirus strategy.

The state’s unemployment system has been mired in delays, leaving thousands of people desperate for aid checks in limbo.

California’s health insurance program for low-income residents has dropped coverage for thousands of people due to computer errors.

And last week state officials announced they had vastly undercounted coronavirus case data due to a series of human mistakes and IT glitches.

None of the problems have easy fixes.

“The magnitude of challenges with IT here in the state require a stubborn, long-term effort,” Newsom said at a press conference this week. “It took us decades to get into this place, but we’re now accountable.”

The technology breakdowns Newsom faces in the midst of a global public health crisis follow California’s well-documented history of disappointing results from its tech investments. Those include a $1 billion accounting program that took 16 years to implement and a $90 million payroll upgrade the state abandoned as unworkable.

Newsom called attention to the state’s tech record soon after his inauguration, when he lamented at a press conference that the Department of Motor Vehicles in 2019 didn’t accept credit card payments at its field offices.

“In the private sector, you’re used to having these upgrades to the latest and greatest, and that’s just not the case in government,” said Elizabeth Ashford, who served as an adviser to former governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown.

Newsom has long capitalized on his connections to California’s technology industry and promoted initiatives to modernize government. In 2019, he created a new Office of Digital Innovation.

When COVID-19 struck, he promised data would drive his decisions and eventually made the state’s data publicly available on coding website GitHub.

But the recent COVID-19 setbacks show the state’s IT problems are deeply entrenched.

“California’s interesting, because they are the world’s leader in innovation in the private sector in a lot of ways,” said Matt Lira, special assistant to President Donald Trump for innovation. “But that doesn’t mean that they’re immune to these kinds of challenges in the public sector.”

Lira was among the experts Newsom spoke with for his 2013 book “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government,” which advocated for a more technology-focused mindset in government. Lira recalled speaking “at length” with Newsom for the book.

“He has a fairly intuitive understanding of the nature of the problem,” Lira said. “It’s something he’s definitely passionate about.”

Here are the main challenges in front of Newsom in the coronavirus outbreak.

COVID-19 data stalled

Last week, nearly 300,000 coronavirus test results were blocked from reaching the state’s infectious disease database after a series of technology glitches and human errors. Without complete data, no one knew how many Californians were testing positive or who many of the infected people were.

For days, county officials didn’t know how much data was missing, although they suspected it could be as much as half. That hampered already struggling contact tracing efforts and stymied decisions about reopening schools and businesses. State officials decided they didn’t have enough information to move counties on and off the state’s monitoring list, which determines which businesses a county must shut down.

The Newsom administration has created temporary fixes, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly announced Friday. But the underlying issue, that the state’s disease tracking system wasn’t built to handle a pandemic’s worth of data, remains.

To fix that, the state will build a whole new system with greater capacity, Ghaly said.

“It’s extremely frustrating for the governor,” said Nate Ballard, a Democratic consultant and Newsom confidant who worked in Newsom’s San Francisco mayoral office. “Gavin Newsom has a 21st Century outlook on how technology should serve his constituents, and he has inherited a 20th Century state government technology apparatus.”

Unemployment checks delayed

During the pandemic, a tsunami of unemployment claims has overwhelmed California’s Employment Development Department.

Although the department has processed more than 9 million claims, many Californians who lost jobs have spent countless hours trying unsuccessfully to call the department’s hotlines. Many are still waiting for their money.

“Every hour of every day, my office receives calls from constituents who are draining their life savings, going into extreme debt, figuring out how to pay rent and put food on the table because they are unable to get an answer from this antiquated IT system,” said Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco. “The typical constituent experience is they make dozens if not hundreds of calls into a call center and can’t get through.”

Chiu, who serves on the Assembly budget committee that oversees the state’s technology contracts, said all the problems originate with the department’s 30-year old IT system.

The program relies on a 60-year-old computer language so archaic most engineers who know how to work with it are retired, Chiu said. At a recent hearing on the system’s problems, Chiu read a decade-old report describing the same problems — outstripped capacity, jammed phone lines, staffers unable to answer specific questions — plaguing the department during the Great Recession.

Newsom has said the unemployment delays are unacceptable. He directed the department to hire thousands more workers to help respond more quickly. He also launched a “strike team” to modernize the department’s systems.

Thousands dropped from Medi-Cal

In the meantime, computer system errors have dis-enrolled tens of thousands of people from Medi-Cal, the state’s health insurance program for low-income residents.

Newsom issued an executive order March 17 to ensure that people wouldn’t lose Medi-Cal coverage during the pandemic, but the state’s automated systems have ended coverage for some Californians since then anyway, officials have acknowledged.

California’s Department of Health Care Services recently sent notices to about 200,000 people informing them that they may have been incorrectly dropped from the program, department spokesman Anthony Cava said.

Some of those discontinuances were appropriate because the beneficiary died, left California or asked to be removed, Cava said. But other cases were mistakes, and the state is actively working “to quickly identify and restore all remaining beneficiaries who may have been erroneously discontinued,” Cava wrote in an email.

The state notified some counties about the errors in late June, according to a copy of the memo obtained by The Bee. Despite the governor’s executive order, the state wasn’t able to stop its computer system from automatically disenrolling some Medi-Cal recipients, according to the memo.

The state is still working to determine how many people were affected, Cava said.

Lawyers who work with low-income clients continue to hear from people who have lost coverage even after the counties were notified, said David Kane, a lawyer who works for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. The state should be working harder to fix the problem, which is leaving vulnerable people without coverage in the middle of the pandemic, Kane said.

“It’s August, and they still haven’t completely fixed it,” Kane said.

©2020 The Sacramento Bee, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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