Janesville53.5°

Counties forming consortiums to aid residents

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Catherine W. Idzerda
December 31, 2011
— Next week, counties will be taking over a job that the state offered to do for them.

Or rather, counties will continue to do a job they had done before, but now with additional challenges and financial restrictions.


On the positive side, it means the counties will be able offer more protection to their most vulnerable citizens: the elderly and disabled.


Before the last election, Rock County, like all other counties, provided oversight for economic support programs such as Medical Assistance, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program—formerly referred to as food stamps—BadgerCare and subsidized childcare.


In his budget repair bill, Gov. Scott Walker proposed taking all of those duties away from counties, consolidating them at the state level, and providing service through a call-center model.


A private company, not state workers, would oversee programs. Gov. Scott Walker’s administration estimated the proposal would save $48 million each year and eliminate 270 state positions.


The Wisconsin Counties Association, advocacy groups and county officials thought the new model would be a “profoundly bad idea,” said Phil Boutwell, deputy director of Rock County Human Services.


“Many of the recipients for these programs are elderly, blind or disabled,” Boutwell said. “You need to have boots on the ground for these programs.”


“Boots on the ground” means local workers who know what resources their communities can offer, who can meet face-to-face with people with communication barriers and who establish working relationships with long-term clients.


Previous efforts to run programs such as BadgerCare out of centralized offices didn’t work. The Legislative Audit Bureau gave the state performance in operating BadgerCare a dismal review.


U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack eventually weighed in on the debate about who should run economic support services: counties or the private sector.


“Recent state agency privatization initiatives in Texas and Indiana have been complete failures, marked by technical difficulties, staffing shortages and inadequate training of private call-center staff and resulting in adverse impacts on the state and its people,” he wrote in a letter to the state.


In addition, the federal government informed the state it could not use a private firm to deliver food stamp programs.


So counties offered the state an alternative: Counties would continue to provide the services but they would form income maintenance consortiums. The lead county in each consortium would work with the state, and each county within the consortium would continue to provide face-to-face services for their residents.


In addition, each county would provide a call center to answer questions and process change orders for all of the consortium’s clients.


The plan received bipartisan support from the state’s joint finance committee.


Rock County will lead a consortium that includes Crawford, Grant, Green, Iowa, Lafayette and Jefferson counties.


Here’s the challenge: The state cut funding to operate economic support services by 16.8 percent, while at the same time requiring counties to contribute the same amount to services that they did in 2009.


In 2011, the state gave Rock County $1.44 million. Next year, the county will receive $1.20 million.


How will Rock County manage?


“We’re looking for efficiencies,” Boutwell said.


Most documents are now in the form of electronic records, making it easier for economic support specialists to field questions.


The call center also will help. Call center workers can answer basic questions, thus eliminating phone tag between caseworkers and clients.


But the bottom line isn’t pretty. Economic Support Division cases have increased more than 93 percent in nine years, from 8,122 in 2002 to 15,702 in July 2011.



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