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Rhode Island's Biggest-Ever IT Project Goes Live

The new system will encompass a wide array of public-assistance programs, from health coverage to subsidized childcare, cash assistance and the food stamp program now known as SNAP.

(TNS) — PROVIDENCE, R.I. — After years of hiccups and delays, the state's biggest-ever IT project goes live on Tuesday at an estimated cost to state and federal taxpayers of $364 million so far, that may swell to $487.4 million by 2018 if the Raimondo administration gets the additional money it is seeking.

Known as UHIP, the "Unified Health Infrastructure Project" was launched four years ago by then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee's administration to take advantage of federal money available for a new enrollment-and-tracking system for Obamacare enrollees.

Then it grew — and grew — to more than triple the initial $110-million cost estimate.

In its current incarnation as a replacement for a hodgepodge of decades-old state computer systems, the new system will encompass a wide array of public-assistance programs, from health coverage to subsidized childcare, cash assistance and the food stamp program now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

If all goes well here, the Raimondo administration anticipates the new eligibility system will make "it easier and more convenient for Rhode Islanders to apply for and track their benefits," make it more likely the state will be able to detect — and stop — waste and fraud, and save enough money to enable the state to recoup its entire UHIP investment "within the next two to three years."

Needless to say, Rhode Island hopes to avoid this recent headline in Kentucky's Courier-Journal: "New Ky benefits system disrupting aid for many."

"People seeking help must wait hours or days, repeatedly calling a state helpline only to get a recorded message that advises them to try later and then hangs up. ... Others visit overcrowded state benefit offices where they must wait for hours — sometimes the entire day — to get help," the Kentucky newspaper reported in March.

Asked about the chances that Rhode Island will have similar problems, Office of Health & Human Services spokeswoman Sophie O'Connell said: "The approach we have taken to the design, development, testing and implementation of this new system is unique to Rhode Island and the people we serve. Kentucky used a different approach on all of these things."

“We have dedicated considerable time and resources to making this transition as smooth as possible, but we know that we will encounter some issues in the immediate days, weeks and months after the launch," added Department of Administration Director Michael DiBiase in a recent statement.

"We have a team in place to quickly identify, prioritize and fix any issues that arise," he said.

The Raimondo administration has not responded to requests last week for the results of the test-runs, payments to vendors and other documentation sought by The Journal. The cost estimate so far is $80 million in state dollars and nearly $285 million in federal funds, though the Raimondo administration has confirmed a bid to spend an additional $124 million to address planned and unplanned project needs. (The reason is not yet fully clear, though spokesman Mike Raia described the latest money request as "aspirational.")

- But Rhode Island's years-long rollout has already had its share of bumps.

In an FY 2015 budget-year document, Christine Ferguson, then-head of the ObamaCare program known as HealthSource RI, alerted Chafee to problems with Phase I: "To date, a significant portion of HSRI’s non-technology resources (more than 50 percent) has been invested in working around defects and accommodating a lack of functionality in the UHIP system."

In June, at one in a series of occasional lunches with reporters, Governor Raimondo expressed frustration about the latest delay, after the launch date was postponed, at the reported suggestion of the federal government, by 60 days.

"We haven't hit the milestones that we want to hit," she said.

When asked the specific reasons for this latest delay, O'Connell, the OHHS spokeswoman, said the federal government "worked closely with the State during the development and testing of the new eligibility system and recommended that we conduct even more rigorous testing and an expanded pilot."

What to expect when the new public-benefits system goes live?

"We have thoroughly tested the system to identify and address as many issues as possible before go-live. However, we cannot predict every scenario, considering the very complex medical and service needs of the clients we serve. With the launch of any new technology system this large and complex — in both the public and private sector — there will be issues that surface in the immediate days, weeks and months after the launch.

"This is normal and we have teams in place to quickly to resolve issues, minimize any inconvenience to our clients, and ensure people get the services they need."

The upside?

Those seeking public benefits will be able to apply and "manage their account information online, 24/7, instead of having to come in person to a [Department of Human Services] field office," O'Connell said.

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