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Privatization hangover
September 5, 2008

For $85 million, Texans deserve better than an automated payroll system that blindly sends checks to ex-employees while promised evaluations and training are not carried out. Health and Human Services officials must also be held accountable for failing to provide the contract oversight they've been promising for years.

Written by Editorial, The Houston Chronicle

Audit

The drive to hire private contractors to take over duties performed by state employees in agencies under the oversight of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission — mandated by the Legislature five years ago — has been a slow-motion disaster. The commission was forced to terminate a major contract with Accenture last year after the attempt to privatize eligibility screening for social service programs caused chaos and erroneously denied services to thousands of qualified Texans.

In early 2006 the state auditor issued a report critical of another commission contractor, Convergys, which was selected in 2004 for a five-year, $85 million pact to provide human resources and payroll services for the 46,000 employees in the agencies the commission supervises. Auditors warned that supervision of the contract was lax, resulting in late and incorrect paychecks to workers and inadequate training and spending on technology.

A return visit by the auditors this year found that payroll and management problems at the state agencies continue. Texas State Auditor John Keel reported that more than $738,192 had been mistakenly paid out to more than 1,200 former state employees after they had been terminated. Only half of those taxpayer dollars have been recovered. In addition, 43 employees were allowed to take paid emergency leave because of criminal charges, with an average length of 70 days. Nine out of 10 agency supervisors had not received required training, while nearly three-fourths of employees sampled had no performance evaluations in their files.

According to commission documents, Convergys is responsible for time and leave collection and tracking, payroll processing, performance evaluations, and administrative training and staff development. The commission is responsible for oversight of the Convergys contract. Neither the commission nor the contractor seems to be performing at an acceptable level.

The chairman of the Texas Senate Health and Human Services Committee, Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, called the audit results unacceptable and demanded an immediate response from agency officials. According to Nelson, "It is unimaginable that a terminated employee would continue to receive a paycheck or that someone could be placed on 'emergency leave' for a year while investigations of criminal background checks are taking place."

She also noted that employee screening and training are particularly critical in agencies where workers are entrusted with the care of children, the elderly and other vulnerable citizens.

For $85 million, Texans deserve better than an automated payroll system that blindly sends checks to ex-employees while promised evaluations and training are not carried out. Health and Human Services officials must also be held accountable for failing to provide the contract oversight they've been promising for years.

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