Clarence Fanto: State needs to get back to being a role model


LENOX -- What took so long?

Gov. Deval Patrick finally stepped up this past week and acknowledged, with the inevitable apology, what has been obvious since last October.

The state’s online health-insurance marketplace, formerly a role model for the nation, is barely functioning. There’s plenty of blame to go around, starting with CGI, the Montreal-based tech firm assigned to revamp the Massachusetts Health Connector website so that about 150,000 residents who qualify for subsidies can apply or re-enroll for new coverage that lines up with the federal Affordable Care Act.

CGI, the same firm responsible for the disastrous roll out of the national site last fall, is now "on a much shorter leash," Patrick told reporters on Thursday. Never mind the leash -- he should have cut CGI loose.

Instead, he’s bringing in another tech company, Optum, to clean up the CGI mess that forced thousands of people to give up trying to apply for coverage online. Instead, many filed paper applications, but there’s a two-month backlog of unprocessed requests. Optum is hiring 300 insurance specialists to plow through all that paperwork.

Since Optum helped straighten out the deeply flawed federal insurance site, which is now working much more effectively, there may be reasons for optimism that it can wave a magic wand for Massachusetts.

"The point is to catch up on the backlog and deliver a system that will give our residents convenience and confidence when it comes to health care coverage," Patrick said.

The Optum bailout will cost the state nearly $10 million over the next month; the payments will come out of CGI’s $68 million contract. So far, CGI has been paid $15 million for its pathetic efforts. Not a penny more should go its way, and Patrick might have declared the company’s contract null and void because of gross incompetence.

Where does all this leave the estimated 124,000 state residents whose already existing, subsidized coverage was extended from Dec. 31 until March 31? In limbo, for now, though Patrick has assured them that "those who have coverage will not lose it, and those who are seeking coverage will get it."

A reprieve beyond March 31 may be needed until the state website is repaired.

When a reporter asked Patrick if he regretted not acting sooner, he contended that the website’s problems were not clear until the end of November. But months before the site’s crash-and-burn liftoff in October, the warning signs were obvious that CGI was unable to meet its deadlines.

According to a report from an independent tech company, MITRE, assigned by Washington to investigate the problems with the Massachusetts website, state health officials as well as the UMass Medical School, which was responsible for overseeing the CGI work, all shared the blame. Patrick relieved the medical school of any further involvement with the CGI contract.

Why didn’t Patrick fire CGI? He blasted its work as "consistently substandard," adding that it "failed to deliver the system we hired them to deliver." It turns out the state needs CGI to help fix the website because the tech firm owns the computer code for it.

Patrick’s determination to set things right is praiseworthy, but his administration seems reluctant to admit mistakes until whistleblowers come forward.

As has been chronicled extensively in The Eagle and the Boston Globe, John Barrett, former director of the BerkshireWorks career center in Pittsfield, tried to alert the state last spring to deep flaws in the new unemployment-benefit website designed by another trouble-prone tech firm, DeLoitte Consulting.

For his efforts, which included taking his concerns to the public, Barrett was scolded by an angry Labor Secretary, Joanne Goldstein, who’s now ensconced at Northeastern University in an administrative post.

"She obviously tried to neutralize me," Barrett declared last week. Clearly, state officials were more concerned about bad publicity tarnishing their image than addressing the problems Barrett and other career-center leaders had identified.

A temporary spokesman for the Labor Department put out a statement a few days ago claiming that the state offered career centers extra staffing and support to cope with stymied seekers of unemployment benefits.

In an apparent contradiction, the spokesman, Robert Oftring, declared that "career center directors were encouraged to voice their concerns and offer suggestions about how to best structure the launch" of the website last July. But he added that Barrett and other directors were "encouraged to coordinate their public statements" with the state’s Department of Career Services.

The pattern seems obvious: Spin control takes priority over confronting and resolving problems that cause the public to lose confidence in government at all levels, from Washington to Boston to City Hall and Town Hall.

Deflecting blame and denying problems are obvious human traits. But we expect better of our elected or appointed leaders. Despite their vows of transparency and openness, too often their actions seem to be opaque and secretive.

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