Ontario'sNew welfare computer system full of bugs

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New welfare computer system denounced HAMILTON - A new glitch-prone computer system will create problems for people receiving disability and welfare support cheques in Ontario if it isn't fixed. That's the warning from union and welfare activists who picketed government offices yesterday in Hamilton, Brantford, St. Catharines and Simcoe.

Ontario is preparing to expand the new social assistance delivery system throughout the province but computerbugs during a four-month trial in the Hamilton-Niagara region resulted in blank cheques, missed drug and dental benefits and overpayments, they say.

Employees of the Ontario Disability Support Program picketed outside their King Street West offices during a lunch break and union representative Paul Statham says workers are frustrated by the new system.

"It's not working and needs to be fixed and we want the public to know,'' he says. "It means clients are phoning up and yelling at us for system errors that we have no control over.''

The computer glitches have resulted in increased stress and workloads for employees who have to find ways "to work around'' the computer and manually deal with claims.

The problems affect not only the provincially-administered disability payments but also the social assistance and Ontario Works programs downloaded by the province onto municipalities, says Statham of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

The Hamilton Fight-Back Committee, which advocates for welfare recipients, is planning a demonstration Oct. 19.

Ontario Works officials in Hamilton recently blamed the four-month pilot project here for their inability to place more welfare recipients into jobs and win incentive grants from the province.

Ken Baker, manager of income support for Ontario Works in Hamilton, says there is no denying there have been glitches and the system, "like any new program is cumbersome to deal with.'' Problems are being dealt with as they arise, however.

"I'm not trying to make any excuses for the province but it has been a difficult row to hoe,'' he says. "And pilot programs are meant to be pilots and this was a sweeping change.''

The problem of blank cheques is being addressed. They were a form of income statement but were "certainly not client-friendly,'' he says.

Baker is not in a position to say whether the system is ready to be expanded to the rest of the province. But the system is getting better and other areas of the province will benefit from fixes and training changes put in place in Hamilton and Niagara which handles 48,000 cases, he says.

Toronto is expected to start using the new system Sept. 10 and all of Ontario's 195,529 social assistance caseload will be on-line by January.

Dan Miles, the spokesman for John Baird, the minister of Community and Social Services, says there will be "growing pains'' and "mistakes made'' but recipients will be better served.

The pilot project in Hamilton allowed the government to identify how the new system could be improved and changed.

"This is a new system that is far superior to what was there before,'' he says. "We were dealing with a system that was 30 years old and technology that was clearly out of date.''

There will be better and faster access to information which will be on-line after business hours and a patchwork of old technology in Ontario will be replaced, Miles says.

Ernie Parsons, the MPP for Prince Edward-Hastings and Liberal critic for the ministry, was at the Hamilton demonstration and says the problems of disabled people are being ignored with the new system.

The governments wants to simplify the support system and do away with case workers in favour of telephone call centres and on-line computer access.

"Persons with disabilities are not able to access these normal systems,'' he says. "For a person who is blind or deaf, the idea of applying over the telephone and talking to someone different each time at a computer is not working at all.''

The delivery and computer system should not be expanded until it is fixed, Parsons says.

Statham of OPSEU says employees of the disability support program are "incensed'' because government "propagandists and spin doctors'' recently issued a statement saying the Hamilton pilot program was a roaring success.

"That's not true and it needs fixing, not work-arounds.''

Statham says the government is following a political agenda and paying out millions to the consulting company overhauling Ontario's social assistance system to the detriment of welfare recipients and its workers.

"The bottom line is that it affects the clients who don't get the benefits they are supposed to get and some get dinged for the overpayments,'' he says.

Accenture, formerly Anderson Consulting, stands to receive $180 million for the program redesign and the untendered contract amount has been criticized by the provincial auditor-general.

"When all is said and done, the government is going to pay out $180 million and it doesn't work,'' says Statham.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), September 05, 2001

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