Software bugs delay portal for health programs
By Martiga Lohn
ST. PAUL — Five years and more than $8 million into a project plagued by delays and glitches, state human services officials decided to abandon their first attempt to develop software for an online health care sign-up system and start over.
A 20-page assessment outlined issues with the HealthMatch project two months after the Department of Human Services dropped the software developer, ACS State and Local Solutions Inc., for insufficient progress. The report said the software was "incomplete, error-prone and not always efficient to use."
Assistant Commissioner Brian Osberg said Friday that his agency didn’t know the extent of the problems until it terminated the contract. Now, human services officials will spend the next six months studying their technological options and coming up with a new plan. They’ve got about $15 million left to develop HealthMatch.
"We weren’t aware of all the technical specifics of this until after the termination of the vendor arrangement," Osberg said Friday.
He added: "In retrospect, it would have been obviously nice to know sooner."
Moving the health care enrollment process online is expected to save time and reduce errors. The Human Service Department envisions an electronic system that will determine an applicant’s eligibility for state health care and slot the person into the right program, streamlining a process now done mainly — and sometimes incorrectly — on paper.
More than 660,000 Minnesotans get their health care through MinnesotaCare and two other subsidized plans.
To work properly, the HealthMatch system would have to allow human services staff to navigate a labyrinth of state and federal health care regulations, easily update software to reflect frequent legislative changes and meld all that into a user-friendly Web site where applicants could enroll in programs.
No state has developed such a system yet, Osberg said, and there are no commercial software packages to do the job.
A spokesman for ACS didn’t immediately return a phone message.
The assessment, dated May 2, documents the evolution of a troubled project, with shifting goals, turnover among programmers and lack of expertise among both programmers and agency staff. The original 2003 contract was amended twice as the project expanded and the overall price went up from $13 million to nearly $23 million. Delays and other problems led to three different payment arrangements between August 2005 and December 2006.
The Human Services Department paid ACS and its predecessor companies $8.3 million, a figure that doesn’t include agency staff time devoted to the project.
Eight years after a consultant first came up with the idea for HealthMatch, Osberg said it’s too soon to say how much it will ultimately cost and how long it will take to get the system up and running.
"We want to make sure we do this right," he said. "We don’t want to make the mistake of developing a system that won’t work."