Computer woes delay child-care subsidies
About 1,600 low-income children remain stuck on a waiting list for subsidized child care because a computer system built by the state government has been beset by problems for four months.
The Department of Early Education and Care launched the new, $5.05-million system on July 1, despite concerns about its readiness raised by the child-care providers who rely on it to get paid.
The computer problems follow several other state government technology upgrades that have gone awry in recent years, creating chaos in systems that consumers needed to access, including the new Massachusetts Health Connector and unemployment benefits.
The latest problems delayed the release of new child-care vouchers — the mechanism by which many low-income families get access to subsidized care — that were budgeted for the fiscal year that began on July 1. The Legislature provided $12 million this year to try to reduce the stubbornly long list of families who are poor enough to qualify for state aid but who can't access it because funds are limited.
The wait list, which totaled 26,881 families last month, has long been a problem, forcing working parents to cobble together child-care arrangements on their own for months or even years until they get a voucher.
"Some of them lose their jobs and, ironically, go on [welfare]," said Sharon Fileccia MacDonald, director of member services for the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, a trade group that advocates for the child-care providers that accept income-qualified children. Child-care vouchers are still available for welfare recipients, she noted.
Others who are waiting for vouchers switch to night shifts, trade off care arrangements with relatives, or tap young relatives and neighbors as baby sitters. "They patch it together while they're waiting," MacDonald said.
Advocates expected the additional vouchers to be released in the fall. But because of the technological problems, the vouchers now won't begin to be released until December, officials said.
"December is a little late," said state Representative Alice Hanlon Peisch, who is receiving updates from Weber because of her role as chairwoman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Education. "And every day you don't have a voucher for the people who would have gotten one is not good."
Press secretaries would not make Education Secretary James A. Peyser or Early Education and Care Commissioner Thomas L. Weber available for interviews.
Laura Rigas, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Education, issued a statement that said the state "will serve 1,600 more children from the Department's wait list for financial assistance through vouchers that are set to go out several weeks later than last year due to issues with an IT system initiated by the previous administration. The Department has worked successfully to ensure that the same total number of children will be enrolled in child care this year and to pay its providers on time as it brings the IT system to full performance."
Developed starting in 2013 under the administration of Governor Deval Patrick, the Child Care Financial Assistance system was built by a team of vendors and contractors working with officials from three different state agencies – the Massachusetts Office of Information Technology, the Executive Office of Education, and the Department of Early Education and Care.
The department uses the system to administer $500 million in subsidies to day-care centers across the state. The same system tracks families' eligibility and placement on a wait list, and is tapped by child-care providers to report children's actual hours of attendance and to submit invoices for payment.
The team developing the Web-based system had planned a launch on March 1, then April 1, but as providers attended training, they began identifying problems, said MacDonald.
"They would show us things on screen shots as opposed to actually getting in there and using it," said MacDonald. "So that's when we were starting to say, 'Is this going to be ready?' "
By April 1, she said, "We could enroll kids, but we weren't sure if we were going to be able to bill for them."
In mid-June, on behalf of 542 child-care centers and family providers, the association wrote a letter urging the commissioner to consider postponing the launch.
"There are currently over 60 individual technical glitches or policy decisions, including 22 critical, that need to be resolved in a working group or by the department," wrote William J. Eddy executive director of the association. "That list continues to grow after each training."
In addition, he raised concerns about how well-equipped the department's staff would be to work with providers after the launch. He said early retirements were hitting the department particularly hard and would remove "several staffers who would typically be on the front lines of working with the provider community in the launch of such an initiative."
According to the National Association of Government Employees, 25 employees from the Department of Early Education and Care took the state's early retirement incentive. That took effect July 1, the same day the system went live.
While Rigas said none of the retirees worked on the technology project, she acknowledged the state had to bring in additional staff and extend contracts to complete troubleshooting. She would not say how much the repairs and ongoing troubleshooting are expected to cost.
Amid all the concern, it's unclear why the state plunged ahead. "There seemed to be external pressures driving this," said Eddy, pointing to the administration.
Neither Rigas, nor Dominick Ianno, a spokesman for the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, would address the question of why the launch wasn't postponed.
Tim Buckley, a spokesman for the governor, did not return a phone call for comment.
While the billing system remains inoperable, many other functions governing children's enrollment, placement, authorization, and attendance are now working. However, providers said they are still dealing with some errors in data caused by merging two previous systems.
"Not every voucher is 100 percent correct yet," said Rob Zwirn, vice president of finance for Little Sprouts, which has 22 schools, most in Massachusetts.
Mark Anderegg, president and chief executive at Little Sprouts, said that the rollout of the new technology "has been a herculean undertaking and as with any sort of software overhaul, it was not without its challenges." But he said the department and the commissioner in particular "took an impressive leadership role in addressing it. There was no time that we weren't very clear on the amount of effort going into getting questions answered."