June 6, 2012
The man called my office to complain about BadgerCare. “I used to go to the county and get things fixed,” the farmer said. “Now I have to call somewhere in La Crosse. It takes many calls and things still aren’t fixed.”
The farmer needs BadgerCare. But getting help seems much harder.
In the last budget the governor proposed ‘privatizing’ or sending the enrollment of BadgerCare to for-profit contractors. Counties who administer the program complained services would be poorer and errors would increase. In a compromise, regional enrollment centers were set up.
These regional centers are under public operation but much of the administration of BadgerCare and other parts of Medicaid are not. So much work was privatized that an audit showed more for-profit contract employees running Medicaid than state employees.
Now efforts are afoot to change the administration of Wisconsin Works (W-2), the state jobs program.
Job Centers are run through counties and provide a ‘one-stop-shop’ to help eligible families when the breadwinner loses a job. Local W-2 workers assist struggling families find temporary job placements and other services including food, help with utility bills, health care, child support and mental health.
County leaders fear the state is changing these job centers. Officials from 32 counties asked the state to stop a recent ‘request for proposal’ that solicits bids for the creation of large regional centers. Advocates are concerned this new system would make people in need travel miles away for services. They worry the new system could be run by for-profit contractors.
A county leader visited my office and called attention to this ‘request for proposal’. The state is quietly making changes to the program operation with no public discussion, no vote in the Legislature, no analysis of the wisdom of the proposal. He and others fear the changes will move the administration of the W-2 program from county management to private companies.
Many counties established work agreements with local businesses to provide jobs for the jobless. These relationships reflect the local economy, business needs, and local jobless workers’ needs. Locals feel these arrangements would go by the wayside. Some fear jobs may go instead to politically connected companies in a more centralized private system.
State officials say the new set-up will save money, streamline services and create more accountability.
But the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families (WCCF) sees things differently. The Council, a child advocacy group, pointed out a few problems with the plan in a recent press release.
Local counties have a great deal of discretion in who gets work placements and where jobless workers go to work. “Shifting those decisions to private, for-profit agencies puts the decision-making into the hands of private entities that aren’t accountable to voters,” stated Bob Jacobson in the WCCF press release. “When those decisions are flawed and produce bad outcomes, it’s the county taxpayers who are left to pick up the tab.”
Counties are accountable to taxpayers. County board meetings are open to the public. County budgets and workers salaries are open books. When services aren’t properly delivered taxpayers can call their county supervisor or me.
But what happens when a for-profit company delivers public services with public dollars miles away from home?
Past state audits show serious problems. The Department of Health rapidly expanded for-profit contracts with “little organized planning, limited legislative oversight, and no formal efforts to determine the appropriate mix of contract and state staff,” wrote the state auditor exactly a year ago.
The audit cited poor oversight of private contractors, a lack of quality assurance and the potential loss of federal funding. The auditor raised cautions in expanding private contracting because of mixed results in other states. She concluded with concerns about the transparency of such practices.
We must learn from our past mistakes. Chipping off pieces of state government and selling it to private companies hasn’t worked. If the proposed W-2 system is well planned it should stand up to public scrutiny.
County officials are spot-on. State officials should immediately suspend the W-2 ‘request for proposal’ and schedule a public hearing on their plan. If public dollars are at risk for private gain the public needs to know up front. Not after the fact.