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Indiana's bumpy road to privatization

After the private sector took over the state's public assistance program, services were disrupted while politically connected firms benefited. The state's experience underscores the risks of such handoffs — and the issue is likely to persist nationwide.

June 24, 2011|By Matea Gold, Melanie Mason and Tom Hamburger, Los Angeles Times
  • Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, has been a leading proponent of privatizing state services as a means of shrinking government.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, has been a leading proponent… (Darron Cummings, Associated…)

Reporting from Indianapolis — Louise Cohoon was at home when her 80-year-old mother called in a panic from Terre Haute: The $97 monthly Medicaid payment she relied on to supplement her $600-a-month income had been cut without warning by a private company that had taken over the state's welfare system.

Later, the state explained why: She failed to call into an eligibility hot line on a day in 2008 when she was hospitalized for congestive heart failure.

"I thought the news was going to kill my mother, she was so upset," said Cohoon, 63. Her mother had to get by on support from cash-strapped relatives for months until the state restored her benefits under pressure from Legal Services attorneys.

Cohoon's mother, now suffering from Alzheimer's disease, was one of thousands of Indiana residents who abruptly and erroneously lost their welfare, Medicaid or food stamp benefits after Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels privatized the state's public assistance program — the result of an efficiency plan that went awry from the very beginning, the state now admits.

Though the $1.37-billion project proved disastrous for many of the state's poor, elderly and disabled, it was a financial bonanza for a handful of firms with ties to Daniels and his political allies, which landed state contracts worth millions.

The disparate effects underscore the risks of handing control over public services to the private sector. Whether the approach will ultimately improve services and save money remains a matter of fierce debate in Indiana. But the state's experience shows that without adequate safeguards, privatization can compound the very problems it is designed to correct: bureaucratic burdens, perceptions of influence-peddling and a lack of competition.

It's an issue that is likely to persist, as Republicans in statehouses nationwide turn to private companies as they seek to shrink government and weaken the hold of public-sector unions. One of the main proponents has been Daniels, who privatized a prison and a major toll road and sought unsuccessfully to lease out the state lottery, cultivating a reputation for fiscal discipline that led major party figures to urge him to run for president in 2012. He recently declined, but retains considerable influence in his party.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin is seeking to privatize aspects of his state's welfare programs, much as Daniels did — an idea that has drawn warnings from federal officials who noted the problems Indiana encountered.

Critics say that in Indiana, the privatization process barreled forward with little public input and was marred by the appearance of conflicts of interest. Despite the massive nature of the changes he was proposing, Daniels insisted he did not need legislative approval. And the only public hearing occurred after he announced he would proceed with the project.

Key players involved in the process had ties to Affiliated Computer Services, the company that benefited the most from the deal. Mitch Roob — a Daniels appointee who ran the state's Family and Social Services Administration when it awarded the contract — was a former ACS vice president. As the state began the project, Roob occasionally sought advice from former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, a political ally of Daniels and fellow privatization advocate who also had been an ACS vice president.

John Donahue, who studies public sector reform at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said even the appearance of too-cozy contracting ties can taint a well-intentioned privatization effort.

"Contractual hygiene is pretty important," said Donahue, formerly an assistant secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. "People tend to be paranoid about conflicts of interest, and for good reason."

In a brief interview, Daniels called "completely bogus" the suggestion that his administration was too close to companies that won lucrative contracts.

"There is no evidence of that," he said. "Our approach was either firms perform well — or we will get rid of them and try someone else."

Yet it took two years before the governor acknowledged that replacing caseworkers with centralized call centers "just didn't work." In October 2009, Daniels canceled a 10-year contract with an IBM-led consortium of companies that included ACS among its subcontractors. IBM and Indiana are now engaged in dueling lawsuits scheduled to go to trial next February.

After IBM was fired, ACS — which was blamed by welfare advocates for many of the problems — was given a new eight-year contract worth $638 million to continue its work, according to state records.

All told, three politically connected firms gained from the welfare privatization effort in Indiana: ACS; the Lucas Group, a Boston-based firm that wrote the specifications for the contract; and Barnes & Thornburg, the Indianapolis law firm that lobbies for ACS and is representing the state in its suit against IBM.

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