- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

MADISON, WIS. (AP) - The state Department of Health Services on Thursday stood by its decision not to notify 5,000 Medicare recipients who were wrongly told their Social Security benefits were being cut.

Republican lawmakers lashed out at the department’s decision not to send a letter to those affected telling them not to worry.

“The state is saying we don’t care,” said Rep. Robin Vos, R-Racine.

Department of Health Services spokesman Seth Boffeli said the state was asked by the Social Security Administration not to send a letter. Boffeli said that’s because Social Security was going to notify those affected and didn’t want the state to confuse people by sending its own letter.

Boffeli did not know if the second letter had been sent as of Thursday.

The department notified lawmakers and counties this week with an e-mail detailing the situation. However, the general public was not told about the issue. The department only spoke publicly about it after being asked Wednesday by The Associated Press.

Boffeli defended that approach, saying it was reasonable because only a small number of people were affected by the problem.

Pamela Eitland, director of the Vernon County human services department, said she had no problem with the state asking counties to spread the word about the problem. She said her county had gotten some calls about it, but she didn’t know how many.

“We’ll respond,” she said.

The state’s decision to stick counties with the responsibility to spread the word is part of a systemic problem where no one wants to take responsibility for errors, said Rep. Phil Montgomery, R-Green Bay.

The department should notify those affected and assume responsibility for the problem, said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.

Because of the computer error, earlier this month 5,000 Medicare recipients received a letter from Social Security telling them that their benefit check in April would be cut $300. The state caught the error and 4,000 people who receive electronic Social Security payments will not see any deduction in the April 3 check.

However, 1,000 who receive paper Social Security checks will get $300 less. They will receive a second check within seven to 10 days reimbursing them, the department said.

Boffeli originally said the department decided against sending out a letter to those affected because that could create more confusion, especially if the letter arrived after their April 3 payment. He later said no letter was sent because of the request from Social Security not to do it.

The 5,000 people affected by the glitch are among 100,000 statewide who receive both Medicare and state Medicaid benefits. The computer error in February wrongly determined that 5,000 of those people who have their entire premium paid by the state were no longer eligible.

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 said the error will not cost the state anything.

Even so, Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, said he will demand that there is follow up to determine what went wrong.

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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