Plans axed for central federal role

In a long-awaited report the Department of Health and Human Services has backed off its intention to recommend to Congress a federally managed computer system to track welfare recipients.

Over the holidays— and with little fanfare— HHS delivered to the House Ways and Means Committee's Subcommittee on Human Resources an overdue report assessing the ability of states' information technology systems to track how long welfare beneficiaries receive benefits as required by the 1996 welfare reform law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The law limits individuals' welfare benefits to two consecutive years and a lifetime total of five years.

To track welfare beneficiaries who cross state lines states' welfare systems must have the capability to exchange data. HHS reportedly supported developing a large national system to track welfare recipients which the report calls the Family Ass istance Case-Tracking System. HHS also supported maintaining the system. States disagreed with HHS on FACTS' design and questioned HHS' control of the system.

After delaying the release of the report for a year and a half because of the battle over FACTS HHS declined to recommend a particular architecture to connect the states.

"When we first went into it we thought we would find one architecture that was clearly the answer and recommend that architecture to Congress " said Mark Ragan director of state systems for HHS' Administration for Children and Families. "What we found in the analysis however is that there are a number of alternatives each of which has its advantages and disadvantages."

HHS offered five alternative architectures (see chart). None of the alternatives implies specific federal responsibility for managing state data sharing.

"We did not assume that the central process would be a federal system " according to the "Report to Congress on Data Processing and Case Tracking in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program." "The analysis was conducted in a manner independent of any determination about what entity would manage and operate the central system."

HHS also said states are facing a daunting challenge in developing the systems which HHS concluded will collectively cost states $1 billion to develop. "Although states have experience with exchanging information the legislation implies an exchange of information between states that is unprecedented and requires a capability that does not currently exist " according to the report.

In developing the report HHS worked with several groups that represented state interests.

The National Association of State Information Resource Executives is pursuing its own study on state welfare IT with an agenda to educate federal officials and other decision-makers on the complexities facing state technology overhauls.

"We are writing for the outside reader notably the federal reader to influence them and i nform them about what states are doing " said Larry Singer director of Public Interest Breakthroughs a Vienna Va. nonprofit group that works with state governments to reform human services programs.

Staff director Ron Haskin said the Ways and Means Subcommittee is still reviewing the report which gave Congress three options: select an architecture for development specify an "evolutionary approach" or appropriate funds to put in place a FACTS steering committee.

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