- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - A former state employee said Monday he was fired soon after telling superiors that he feared possible violent reaction over problems with a new public benefits system.

Norman “Chip” Ward, the former executive director of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services’ ombudsman’s office, told The Courier-Journal (https://cjky.it/1ohz3HR ) that hundreds of callers have been frustrated over losing benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps. Ward told the newspaper he was worried an angry client might visit a local state benefit office and become violent.

Cabinet Chief of Staff Steve Davis last week declined to elaborate on Ward’s dismissal, saying it was “a personnel matter.”

The new system, benefind, launched Feb. 29.

Many callers are furious they can’t reach anyone on a state hotline to handle questions about benefits they said were wrongly canceled under the new system.

“I expressed my concern that something bad was going to happen,” Ward said, adding he was worried an angry client might visit a local state benefit office and become violent. “It was really reaching a boiling point.”

Ward said that on March 18, he notified cabinet officials of his concerns, including Davis, Secretary Vickie Yates Glisson; Deputy Secretary Tim Feeley; and Adria Johnson, the commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, which handles public benefits.

Ward said Glisson expressed surprise that people were losing benefits and asked Ward to compile more information for her, which his staff began doing.

On March 21, Davis appeared in his office and told Ward his services were no longer needed. Davis asked him to vacate the office that day, the newspaper said.

Davis didn’t give him a reason, “but it seems oddly coincidental,” Ward said. Ward said as a political appointee, he lacks merit protection.

Cabinet spokesman Doug Hogan on Monday night released a statement from the cabinet blaming former Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration for flaws in the benefind system.

“No one has been retaliated against for alerting cabinet leadership to problems we inherited from the previous administration,” the statement said. “The search for a new ombudsman began months ago, before the rollout of benefind. Our new ombudsman is charged with addressing concerns in a timely manner and implementing strategies to improve the situation for workers and clients.”

Ward said he didn’t hear any direct threats from callers but was concerned by the cursing, anger and desperation of people saying they didn’t have food for their children or any way to pay for essential medication.

State officials have downplayed the problems, saying they are working to ease the transition to a new system that health advocates have described as a disaster. They also have pointed out that development of the Benefind system was begun several years ago under the Beshear administration.

“With a rollout of any system of this magnitude, there’s going to be a transition problem,” Davis said Friday.

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Information from: The Courier-Journal, https://www.courier-journal.com

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