Commentary: November 29, 2010: Burlington Free Press


Commentary was published November 29, 2010:

The Burlington Free Press article “Left on Hold” (Nov. 21) is to be applauded for bringing attention to problems caused by the implementation of the state’s eligibility and enrollment systems modernization plan for programs like 3SquaresVT, Dr. Dynasaur and Fuel Assistance. However, the article missed an important point — these problems, ones that have caused uncountable financial, health and family problems for hundreds of Vermonters, could easily have been prevented.

These eligibility and enrollment systems needed to be modernized. Vermonters had complained for years about not being able to apply online, talk to a specialist who could answer complex eligibility questions, or get through to case workers in a timely way. But developing a modernization plan as important and far reaching as this on a "shoestring" budget, as Department for Children and Families (DCF) Commissioner Stephen Dale stated, did an enormous disservice to thousands of Vermonters who are struggling to make ends meet.

When someone can’t get Food Stamps, they might not eat. When they can’t get their health care application processed or when their health insurance is terminated because the state can’t process the paperwork in time, they can’t see their doctor to get necessary treatment. My organization has worked with many such people. These are not just "growing pains" as [the State’s] spokesman describes, but real life tragedies that frequently cause irreparable harm to families.

This crisis stems largely from [the State’s] and the Legislature’s decision to cut the state budget and workforce at a time when, because of the recession, there was increased demand for state services. Everyone involved with the modernization plan knew how complex it would be, yet 16 essential staff positions were eliminated just as delays and problems were becoming evident. The problems with DCF’s implementation of it modernization process is but one example showing that the state budget and workforce have been cut to a point where state government cannot deliver on its most important mission, helping Vermonters in need of assistance.

Now, with the state facing an estimated $112 million deficit for the next fiscal year, the Legislature and Governor-elect Shumlin must be willing to raise new revenue and not merely rely on budget cuts to solve our deficit problem. Elderly Vermonters cannot continue to go without fuel or food. Sick Vermonters cannot go without treatment. The problems with DCF’s implementation of its modernization system is state government’s version of the canary in the coal mine. Pursuing greater efficiency in state government is an admirable goal, and one we all share, but under the [State’s] "efficiency" mantra simply became code for slashing staff and programs. Gov.-elect Shumlin would be wise to reconsider this approach.

Donna Sutton Fay is the Policy Director of the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security Education Fund.

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