Diamond: More computer problems for DHHS

State Senator Bill Diamond

By State Senator Bill Diamond

One of the more interesting jobs I’ve had in my service in the legislature is sitting on the Government Oversight Committee. They look into all sorts of issues, where there are suspected problems with the way the state operates, and if problems are discovered, we can make recommendations for remedying them. The investigation into the Maine Turnpike Authority is probably the best known work by the committee, but we have looked into a host of other issues.

This past week when we met, we received a report about an important DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services) computer system. DHHS is probably the most complex department of state government, and within DHHS, MaineCare is the largest, most complicated component. Having an effective, efficient computer system is critical to its operation. Unfortunately, MaineCare has a history of computer issues. Their last generation computer system known by the acronym MECMS, was plagued with problems throughout its life, and so in 2008 it was decided to replace it with another system. This one, known as the Maine Integrated Health Management System (MIHMS), was supposed to cure all the old systems problems.

After two years of development, MIHMS went online in the fall of 2010. The problems began immediately. While some teething issues are common, even normal, when a new system is started, these went far beyond what was expected and interim solutions had to be put in place until these could be sorted out.

One of these problems was an inability of the system to identify people who no longer qualified for the MaineCare program. As a result, the state kept paying for the care of people who were no longer officially eligible. DHHS did not report this problem to the legislature until February, 2012, and the problem wasn’t officially fixed until March. This created a host of unfortunate effects; including artificially increasing costs and making the caseload for MaineCare look much larger than it really was. It also resulted in $10.6 million in overpayments and possible federal penalties as well.

The Government Oversight Committee was interested in why it took so long to recognize this problem. The committee asked who knew what, and when did they know about it? What we found out was, to me, very surprising. It turns out that people within the MIHMS project were aware that it could be an issue even before it went online, but this information never got beyond the project manager. Even though people expressed concern and asked questions about the caseload in the interim, the commissioner of DHHS was not aware of the problem until December 2011, over a year after MIHMS was in operation. According to DHHS, there were so many problems being worked on within MIHMS that this wasn’t seen as being a priority.

The report shows many problems with the MIHMS project, and highlights the following; leadership within the project, prioritization of issues, and communication both within the project and in DHHS. The irony of all this is that the new system was chosen to fix existing computer problems and save the state money, and it has cost the state more money and made more problems. If we are ever going to have a Department of Health and Human Services that works well and serves the people of Maine efficiently, we need to improve in these areas. And when we make changes we need to think them through and test them adequately before rushing them into place.

Senator Bill Diamond is a resident of Windham, and serves the District 12 communities of Casco, Frye Island, Raymond, Standish, Windham and Hollis.

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