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Gary Varvel l Indianapolis Star

Dehumanized – again

The indignities heaped on some of Indiana’s most vulnerable residents grow only greater. Thousands of clients of the Family and Social Services Administration suffered under a bungled privatization deal pushed by the last administration. Now, another contractor may have wrongly disclosed their personal and financial information.

FSSA serves older Hoosiers, people with disabilities and mental illnesses, and Medicaid and food stamp recipients. Given the everyday challenges the agency’s clients face, they don’t deserve the headaches and heartaches caused by another administrative misstep. They do deserve someone to watch out for their interests and to advocate loudly and forcefully on their behalf. Like the one before it, this administration seems to regard poor people and those with disabilities as acceptable subjects of experiments in its pet theories of governance.

FSSA blames the latest problem on a programming error by RCR Technology Corp. The error was made in early April, discovered more than a month later, fixed in late May and made public just last week. In the meantime, more than 187,000 FSSA clients may have had their personal and financial information disclosed. Nearly 4,000 may have had their Social Security numbers released.

The information was mistakenly mailed to other clients. The personal data included names, addresses, case numbers, birthdates, gender, race, phone number, email addresses, types and amounts of benefits received, employer information and medical details, including health conditions and statuses.

Financial information disclosed included monthly income and expenses, bank balances and assets.

FSSA has notified clients who may have been affected, but acknowledged that “due to the way the correspondence is printed and mailed, it was not possible to determine specifically which clients had personal information disclosed.” That’s hardly reassuring, even with warnings to those at risk of identity theft.

RCR Technology, based in Hamilton County, has an $83.5 million, nine-year contract that runs through 2017 to provide document management services to FSSA.

This is the same agency that in 2006 signed a $1.3 billion deal with IBM to lead a coalition of private contractors in “modernizing” eligibility services for Medicaid, food stamp and other programs. Clients experienced problems almost immediately. Lost paperwork and call-center problems resulted in some benefits being improperly terminated. The federal government, with oversight of the food stamp benefits, deemed error rates unacceptable.

FSSA canceled the contract in 2009, but only after much suffering by undeserving clients – including children. Dueling lawsuits between the state and IBM ended with the state being ordered to pay $40 million to IBM, on top of the $437 million already spent. Taxpayers paid attorneys $9.6 million more.

The sorry and costly episode should have served as a lesson to FSSA. Outsourcing work to private contractors when it involves vital services and sensitive information requires safeguards that clearly weren’t added after the earlier fiasco.

FSSA’s clients don’t have well-paid lobbyists looking out for their interests. They need legislative champions to step up and stop the assault on their well-being.