Governor Matt Bevin addressed concerns about the embattled Benefind system during a press conference on Thursday
FRANKFORT, Ky. – Gov. Matt Bevin and his top human service officials on Thursday acknowledged widespread problems in the state’s new public benefit system but said they are working furiously to correct the errors that have disrupted lives of thousands of Kentuckians.
“It has not worked as anticipated,” Bevin said at a news conference at the Capitol. “There have … been some difficulties in rolling this out.”
Bevin administration officials said that under the new system known as Benefind, thousands of Kentuckians have received erroneous letters telling them benefits such as Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, have been cut off.
It also has disrupted health coverage for scores of Kentuckians who use kynect, the state’s health insurance exchange, because many of them are now included in Benefind, meant to work as a single point of access for benefits including Medicaid coverage obtained through kynect.
As a result, phone lines have been jammed and state benefit offices flooded with desperate people trying to straighten out errors and ensure vital benefits keep flowing.
“We deeply regret the confusion this has caused,”said Adria Johnson, commissioner of the state Department for Community Based Services.
State officials said Thursday they have worked with federal officials to extend benefits so that no one should be cut off from assistance effective March 31, as many of the letters have indicated. The state has also stopped automatic letters generated by Benefind.
“The overwhelming majority of those letters were wrong,” said state Medicaid Commissioner Stephen Miller about the cut-off of benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps. “That will not happen.”
Health advocates welcomed the news the state won’t cut off benefits but questioned whether Bevin understands the magnitude of the problems that erupted after the state launched the new Benefind system on Feb. 29.
“Benefind has been a true disaster,” said Emily Beauregard, executive director of Kentucky Voices for Health, a coalition of health advocacy groups. “It’s not just a matter of erroneous letters.”
And former Gov. Steve Beshear, who launched kynect and the state Medicaid expansion as part of the Affordable Care Act, criticized his successor for being slow to respond to the problems.
“Thank goodness the Bevin administration is finally admitting there are serious problems with this system and that thousands of Kentuckians are being told that they no longer qualify for benefits,” he said in a statement. “We can only hope that the cabinet will be just as vigorous in correcting this problem as it was in denying that any problem existed for the last three weeks.”
Vickie Yates Glisson, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, briefly became tearful as she described enormous efforts her cabinet has undertaken to address the problems and assist people in need.
“We are doing everything in our power to prevent the delay of benefits to our clients,” Glisson said. “The people we serve are not simply numbers on a spreadsheet.”
Johnson said she couldn’t say how many people have actually lost benefits, as many have reported.
But she said her department has added 185 workers throughout the state to deal with the onslaught of telephone calls and visits to local state benefit offices, where jammed lobbies and long lines have been reported.
Glisson said the state is working to identify anyone who has wrongly lost benefits and reinstate them. She said the cabinet has ramped up efforts to answer phones or respond to messages.
A state hotline for information, 855-306-8959, has been the subject of many complaints, with callers saying they can’t get through or spend hours on hold, only to get disconnected.
“We fully realize that our public sector work impacts the lives of people – often at a time when they are most vulnerable,” she said.
State officials said they are placing Deloitte staff throughout the state in benefit offices to help workers process claims through the new, more complicated system.
Bevin said the goal is to get the problems fixed and ensure more than one million Kentuckians get the benefits they need.
He said the state also will ensure safety of workers.
The Courier-Journal reported Monday that the former top state official in charge of complaints at the cabinet said he was fired from his job March 21, one business day after he warned his bosses at the cabinet that he was worried some state workers could be in danger because some callers were so angry.
Chip Ward, the former executive director of the cabinet’s ombudsman’s office, said he was concerned because callers were increasingly frustrated and angry over the loss of benefits and their inability to reach anyone who could help.
Bevin said the state is committed to staff who ‘are working their tails off.”
“We will take care of our employees,” he said.
He also briefly lectured reporters whom he accused of spreading misinformation about Benefind.
“There has been a tremendous amount of misinformation,” he said. “It’s irresponsible. It’s sloppy journalism.”
Contact reporter Deborah Yetter at (502)582-4228 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.