DHS in the News: Call for DHS audit sets the right tone

Posted on Mar 19, 2015 in NEWS

The new chief of the state’s social service agency has followed the right instinct in requesting an audit of Kolea, its heavily criticized online Medicaid eligibility system.

Rachael Wong, the newly confirmed director of the Department of Human Services, continues to defend KOLEA and praised her employees for their work in implementing it. Designed to replace a laborious paper applications process, KOLEA could help DHS efficiently process more than 330,000 new enrollments, generated largely by the Affordable Care Act.

Wong’s outspoken support for her beleaguered staff ought to help ensure a more effective team approach to carrying out any improvements an audit identifies — and there are sure to be problems uncovered by a third-party review.

House Concurrent Resolution 104, which was slated to be heard Thursday morning, should be promptly adopted as a prerequisite to the state auditor to do the necessary study of the system, which was developed through a $144 million contract, $96 million of which is already spent.

Most of that comprises federal funds, but it’s drawn fire from state lawmakers as well as providers of Hawaii’s health-care safety net. The latter group has complained of information technology problems with the online process — the system freezing, losing information and the like.

Some of the general public frustration likely arises from similar IT problems with the Hawaii Health Connector, the health insurance online marketplace that was rolled out with myriad malfunctions in October 2013. According to some of the complaints, the two systems haven’t interfaced with each other well at all.

Over time there have been improvements, but the complaints peaked again during a recent KOEA system upgrade. Officials said the upgrade would expand the system’s functions, but DHS clients in the community said they continued to have difficulty using it.

DHS attributed the problems to technical issues and user error on the health-provider end of the online transactions. Even so, the system is meant to connect client with services — wherever that client happens to be enrolling — so DHS is on the hook to help resolve any system disconnect between the client and the agency.

Prospects for forthcoming solutions now look better than they’ve been in the past. Wong has steered clear of the blame game, a managerial move as deft as it is promising.

To begin with, DHS is paying for the audit, so there’s agency buy-in. Second, the director acknowledged the public-perception problem that hangs over KOLEA — but rather than dismiss the importance of this factor, she said, “It made me recognize there was a need for facts. We need a third party to come in to be able to assess the process, to assess our product and to assess where we are.”

Exactly so. And once those facts and assessments come in, it will be time for DHS to listen and to put the recommended fixes to good use.

Sponsors of the resolution in the House, Reps. Della Au Belatti and Dee Morikawa, acknowledge that it’s unusual for an agency to call for its own audit, but rightly are seizing the opportunity.

“I’m concerned about the contracts and the extensive amount of money that was expended,” Belatti said. “I don’t feel that we had adequate answers. I’m eager to have the resolution heard.”

Those sentiments are sound. The public should give the resolution its support and give DHS the room to improve, as the new administration at the agency appears prepared to listen and take advice seriously and in good faith.