FRANKFORT, Ky. — Child care providers across Kentucky say the state’s switch to an online system that helps pay for day care for low-income parents is causing widespread problems for them and the families they serve.
The move to “benefind” — which is supposed to be an online, one-stop shop for people seeking state benefits — is resulting in late payments, no payments and a host of other errors such as wrongly terminating parents from the program and multiple mistakes in processing claims, they say.
“It’s a huge financial hardship for providers,” said Anderson County preschool provider Emily Hatfield, who said the state owes her company, Creative Minds Academy, approximately $6,000.
Hatfield was among witnesses who spoke Thursday at a hearing of the House Health and Family Services Committee. Others spoke after the hearing about problems since the state switched from an outside contractor to the benefind system Oct. 1.
“We just got paid this month for children from August,” said Nefree Cook, who operates a Covington preschool where all 54 children qualify for the child care assistance. “How are we supposed to operate that way.”
And Angela Shaw, who runs a Lexington child care program, said she hasn’t paid herself a salary in four weeks because of late payments from the state.
“I have to pay my staff,” she said.
Under the federally funded Child Care Assistance Program, the state makes payments directly to the child care provider once a parent is certified as eligible. Those parents could be working, in school or teen parents still in high school.
Adria Johnson, the state’s commissioner of social services, told the committee her department is aware of complaints from child care providers and has been working to address them.
“We have been very sensitive to providers who have run into challenges,” she said.
Steve Magre, executive director of Child Care Advocates of Kentucky, which represents about 50 child care operators or owners, most in the Louisville area, said his association met with state officials at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to discuss the problems. Magre said he believes the state can turn things around.
“We’re trusting the leadership,” he said.
But providers at Thursday’s hearing said they have spent hours on the phone, and parents hours in line at state benefit offices, trying to resolve problems since the state switched the program to benefind.
Some parents have lost jobs because of taking too much time off to try to resolve problems, they said.
“They don’t get to quit,” Cook said. “They get terminated.”
Benefind’s toll-free number is little help because it involves a lengthy wait on hold or a recorded message telling callers that because of “an unusually heavy volume of calls,” the call will be disconnected, child care providers said. The recording directs callers to try the website, benefind.ky.gov.
The toll free number is 855-306-8959.
For some parents, getting cut off the program — even temporarily — could mean loss of a job they are struggling to keep, said Bradley Stevenson, executive director of the Child Care Council of Kentucky, who also spoke at the hearing.
“It’s creating a workforce issue throughout Kentucky where parents are having to decide whether to go to work or not go to work,” Stevenson said.
Kentucky’s 22,000 child care programs serve about 166,000 children and employ 25,000 people, he said.
Concerns about the assistance program and its potential as a jobs program prompted Rep. David Meade, a Stanford Republican, to file a bill that would remove the program from the cabinet that now manages it, and move it to the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet.
Meade, the House majority caucus chair, said he filed the bill because “early childhood education is so important” and he believes the workforce cabinet could provide a more “watchful eye.”
State Rep. Joni Jenkins, a Louisville Democrat, is a co-sponsor of House Bill 342. She said it may be difficult to disentangle the Division of Child Care, which administers the assistance program, from its present home and move it to workforce, but she supports the idea.
“That would be very complicated,” she said.
Stevenson’s organization managed the assistance program under contract until the state moved it in-house to the benefind system last year. But he said that wasn’t his reason for presenting information about the problems to the legislative committee.
“We don’t want it back,” he said. “We want it fixed.”
Stevenson said his council did an informal email survey of members recently and 148 of 274 who responded reported delinquent payments of $630,808. Another 109 said they could not calculate what they are owed because of incomplete or missing information from the state.
Only 17 reported no major problems, he said.
Meanwhile, complaints about benefind have renewed concerns about the benefit system, first launched in early 2016 by Health and Family Services. It resulted in massive disruptions in other benefits that took the state months to resolve.
The benefind system will take on an even larger job this summer when it becomes the main online system to manage major changes to the state’s Medicaid program affecting hundreds of thousands of people.
“I just think it does not bode well for July 1 when this goes live for the Medicaid population,” said Jenkins, who attended Thursday’s hearing on the child care problems. “The numbers are huge.”
Bernard “Deck” Decker, who manages benefind for the cabinet, disputed some of the claims of critics at the legislative hearing.
“We have not seen any issues within our benefind system,” he said. “We feel like it is working properly.”
He said some people were cut off from the child care program because when the state took it over, it found they did not meet eligibility requirements or provide proper documentation of eligibility.
“That’s probably why some of these people were kicked off the program,” Decker said. “They weren’t eligible.”
He said benefind is processing about 3,000 cases a month and paying about $9 million a month in child care benefits.
“I feel like the rollout has been about as good as a rollout as could possibly be,” he said.
Day care providers at the hearing disputed that claim.
“Mr. Decker is out of touch,” Cook said. “He needs to get in the trenches with us.”
Shaw agreed, saying “it wasn’t a smooth transition.”
Shaw, Cook and Hatfield said they could all cite cases of parents who had been wrongly terminated from the program after the switch to benefind even though they clearly qualified for the child care assistance.
“We received several termination letters,” Hatfield said. “The parents got termination letters. They were all in error.”