By Ed Williams | July 2, 2019
Editor's note: This story is a follow up to the Searchlight investigation (Pay now and pay later) into the dysfunctional computer system that the multinational corporate giant Deloitte foisted on New Mexico – and the state’s attempt to get out from under its self-inflicted mess.
The New Mexico Human Services Department is undertaking a new initiative to reprogram a computer system after an investigation by Searchlight New Mexico revealed massive, ongoing software glitches that have robbed countless low-income residents of medical care and food aid.
Nearly half the state’s population relies on HSD’s Automated System Program and Eligibility Network, or ASPEN, to process its applications for Medicaid and other public benefits, and tens of thousands of those residents have had their applications incorrectly denied or have been improperly thrown off of public assistance because of faulty programming within the software.
ASPEN was purchased at a cost of $115 million from the multinational corporate giant Deloitte, with the express purpose of streamlining New Mexico’s processing of Medicaid and public benefits. It has been plagued with constant software glitches and programming errors since it went live in 2013, frustrating employees and snarling the department in legal proceedings over the system’s errors.
In one example uncovered by Searchlight, a programming error in ASPEN failed to deduct utility expenses, as required by law when calculating benefits, from very low-income residents applying for emergency food stamps. As a result, the software overinflated applicant’s income — in many cases incorrectly disqualifying people from the program. HSD corrected that error following Searchlight’s reporting.
Between January 2017 and January 2019, employees reported over 37,000 system malfunctions and other problems with ASPEN. The state pays Deloitte up to $773,361 per month to fix those many of those errors and perform maintenance work on the software.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase, who took office this year, has been vocal about ASPEN’s problems — a marked change from his predecessor, Brent Earnest, who stubbornly insisted that the software was functioning properly, even as the state spent millions to fix errors in the system.
Scrase has initiated an “ongoing intensive process” to fix the glitches, including an initiative to reward employees who identify errors in the computer system. As part of that initiative, he has been traveling to HSD field offices throughout the state to meet with employees about issues they have encountered with ASPEN. So far, HSD employees have identified 3,842 errors, and HSD has fixed 3,550.
Major problems still exist, however. For instance, HSD is currently working with Deloitte programmers to fix a massive error that is illegally kicking people off of Medicaid if those residents make mistakes in their applications for food stamps — a separate and unrelated federal program. Fixing that single programming error is expected to take 5,000 hours and three quarters of a million dollars.
Scrase has requested an additional $1.2 million in supplemental funding from the legislature to pay for further software fixes to ASPEN.
“These things are really expensive” and extremely complicated to reprogram, he said, pointing out that every tweak to the system’s code can potentially cause an unanticipated problem elsewhere in the programming.
“This isn’t freezing a little wart off your hand,” he said. “This is like neurosurgery”.
Meanwhile, faulty calculations by HSD compound the problem. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which is involved in a longstanding lawsuit with HSD over ongoing barriers to government benefits, recently found that an astounding 70 percent of public assistance cases contained errors.
“A huge percentage of people are still being illegally denied benefits,” said Sovereign Hager, an attorney who is NMCLP’s legal director. “We know that this administration is committed to fixing these problems, but there are clearly major issues that still need to be worked through.”
HSD has not set a deadline for fixing all of the remaining errors in ASPEN’s programming, but Scrase has indicated that he expects the system to be functioning properly by the end of the year.