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Our View: Update state’s aging technology

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014 9:29 p.m. CST

Illinois state government is in trouble again.

This time, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services let Illinois have it for its faulty way of withdrawing federal Medicaid money.

The federal audit, released last week, found that the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, during fiscal 2010 through 2012, averaged withdrawing $60 million more quarterly in Medicaid money than it actually needed. That’s a no-no.

The extra Medicaid money was deposited in the state’s general fund and used for purposes for which it was not intended, such as transportation, education and pensions. That’s another no-no.

And during the period audited, Illinois was two to six months’ late in repaying the Medicaid money, costing the federal government nearly $800,000 in lost interest. Oops.

State officials said they justified all the money they withdrew.

The problem, according to Michael Casey, a state finance administrator, is the state’s outdated, 30-year-old computer system.

It’s so old it can’t do daily calculations for the reimbursement rates for a half-dozen different programs. So officials basically give their best educated guess as to the dollar amounts needed.

Blaming the computer is as old an excuse as the computer age itself. But in this case, Casey is right.

The authors of “Fixing Illinois: Politics and Policy in the Prairie State” reported the findings of a 2009 report by the Taxpayers’ Action Board. James D. Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson wrote that Illinois’ human services departments have “dozens of legacy computer systems,” and many of them are 30 to 40 years old.

Such antiquated, fragmented systems “inhibit worker productivity, prevent Illinois from reducing costs, and challenge cross-department collaboration,” they wrote.

That prompted Nowlan and Johnson to offer No. 27 of their 98 suggestions to improve state government.

They call on the state to develop a modern information technology system for human services, where all agencies can share information about clients.

To pay for all the new computers, software and networks, the state’s bonding authority should be used for “this desperately needed long-term capital investment.”

Nowlan and Johnson have an excellent point.

The aging computer systems in state government are dragging it down. Upgrades across the board could greatly lessen problems in human services agencies, and very likely other state departments and agencies.

While Casey was quoted as saying his department is due to receive new computers by the end of 2017, we say that’s not soon enough.

It’s time for state governmental leaders to get serious about addressing the state’s aging information technology before it gets Illinois into any more trouble.

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