- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

MADISON, WIS. (AP) - Thousands of Wisconsin Medicare recipients were wrongly told their benefits were being cut by $300 and the state has not notified them of the mistake.

Even though no one will lose benefits, the state Department of Health Services decided not to notify those affected with a letter and instead is only telling those who call in to complain.

Agency spokesman Seth Boffeli said Wednesday the department decided not to mail letters to those affected because the problem was caught, corrected and checks will be mailed in a matter of days to those who will wrongly receive a lesser payment next month.

He said a computer glitch led to 5,000 Medicare recipients wrongly being notified that the state would no longer be paying their benefits.

About 1,000 of them who receive Social Security paper checks will see a $300 cut in the April payment, Boffeli said. By April 13 a separate payment making up the cut will be sent, he said. The other 4,000 people affected by the error who have Social Security benefits deposited electronically will not see a reduction in what they were to receive on April 3, he said.

Because the checks are coming in a matter of days, sending a mailing to notify people of the problem may not have gotten to them in time, Boffeli said. Instead, callers who complain are being told of the problem, he said. County human services agencies, who may also get complaint calls, are also being told so they can fill in callers, Boffeli said.

State Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield, called the mistake “unfortunate” and the result of “sloppy” work. These kind of problems should have been identified and resolved before the system started to be used, he said.

“It’s obviously going to cause hardship to 1,000 people when it shouldn’t have occurred,” Kanavas said.

Kanavas said he was going to send a letter to DHS asking for an explanation and details about what testing was done prior to the system going live.

The problem affected people who are eligible for both Medicare, a federal program, and the state’s Medicaid program.

For most people, their Medicare premiums are automatically deducted from their Social Security benefit. For about 100,000 Wisconsin residents who also receive Medicaid, all or a portion of their premium is paid by the state.

The computer glitch in February affected about 5,000 of those people who have their entire premium paid, Boffeli said. The computer wrongly determined that they were no longer eligible, he said.

That triggered a letter from the Social Security Administration in March telling them the state had stopped paying their Medicare premium. The letter told them their April payment would be deducted in order to pay their Medicare premiums for February, March and April.

Boffeli said the problem was found and fixed internally during a routine review of the system before the department knew the letters notifying recipients of a cut in benefits had been mailed.

He called the error a “one-time technical problem” that was part of the process of moving to new computer systems that handle Medicaid eligibility and process payments.

Boffeli did not know if those wrongly told about the cut were spread out across the state or isolated in one area. He said the state was in the process of establishing a toll-free number for people affected to call for information.

The error will not cost the state anything, Boffeli said.

The state switched to a new computer system for billing Medicaid and other state health programs in November. In its first week, the system used by pharmacies had to be shut down temporarily because DHS said two files were not interacting correctly. The department said that problem was quickly fixed and there were no complaints about not being able to fill prescriptions.

One of the reasons for switching to the new system was to remove recipients’ Social Security numbers as identifiers.

The state was plagued by a number of security breaches last year. About 260,000 Medicaid, BadgerCare and SeniorCare recipients received mailings in January 2008 with their Social Security numbers on the address labels.

Later that month, up to 5,000 tax forms were improperly folded so that Social Security numbers could be viewed from the address label.

No cases of identity theft were ever reported from those cases.

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