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Explainer: Stalled State Computer System Delays Applications For Services

Fate of long-planned Consolidated Assistance Support System remains uncertain after state cancels contract

Digital_Code_Blocks What it is: The Consolidated Assistance Support System (CASS) has been planned since 2006 and was seen as a way to connect the state Department of Human Services with county welfare offices, allowing information from those applying for assistance to be shared instantaneously across different programs. These include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, and Medicaid, the primary health program for low-income people.

Cancelled contract: This fall, New Jersey terminated its contract with Hewlett-Packard; after the company failed to complete the project following a series of delays.

This has added to the pressure on county welfare offices to process the surge of Medicaid applications that resulted from the expansion of eligibility for the program, which is known as New Jersey FamilyCare in the state. A series of corporate takeovers apparently contributed to the delays.

What’s happening: Not much publicly. But the state has been in negotiations with Hewlett-Packard to try to salvage the work that’s already been done. Not only has time and energy gone into the project, but also it’s cost the state up to $118 million. State Auditor Stephen M. Eells criticized the state’s handling of CASS, questioning why officials didn’t act sooner on the contract, or write into it provisions that would allow the state to recoup damages from the failure to complete the contracted work.

Not just the contract is at stake: Antihunger advocates pointed out in a September hearing that the state stood to lose a portion of the $140 million in federal funding DHS receives to operate the SNAP program, due to the amount of time it takes the state to process food-stamp applications.

New Jersey ranks next to last in the country in processing applications, a problem that has been compounded by the reliance on outdated computer systems. The state has been unable to process applications within the 30-day window required by federal law. State officials submitted a plan to correct the delays, and have noted improvements in application-processing times since the summer. The state could also lose a 75 percent match in federal funding to operate CASS.

An improvement, but not state-of-the-art: Eells’ staff has noted that while CASS would be an improvement on the current system, it won’t be cutting-edge technology. That’s because it’s based on technology that was originally used in Europe and was already old in 2009.

One piece of the puzzle: Medicaid and food-stamp applications have been hindered by more than just the CASS delays, according to policy analysts. The state relies on a fragmented system in which each county welfare office handles its own applications, leading to differences in the processes used across the state. As a result, Medicaid backlogs reached into the thousands in some counties last year.

Improvement despite problems: Despite these backlogs and delays, the state can claim success in actually enrolling residents in Medicaid. The number of people enrolled in FamilyCare grew by 396,000 in 2014, much higher than the 234,000 forecast by the Rutgers Center for State Health Policy in 2011. The Medicaid eligibility increase was a central provision of the federal Affordable Care Act.

What’s next: Since Hewlett-Packard completed work on five of the six stages of the CASS project, the state is trying to salvage the work that’s already been done -- and fend off any penalties for its slow processing of SNAP applications. State legislators have called on Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez to provide more detailed information on the status of these talks and a clearer timeline on when the eight-year-old project will be completed.

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