Most of us have never had to think about how families in need sign up for public help such as health care and food stamps. Right now, however, an important debate is brewing in the Texas Capitol over the question: How should we sign up people for help?

Since the state's new system for determining eligibility was launched six months ago, more than 100,000 kids have lost their health insurance and the state has left thousands of families without food.

Two years ago, the Legislature told the Health and Human Services Commission to find a way to deliver help with less money. Lured by the private sector's promise of savings, the commission signed a five-year, $899 million contract with the Texas Access Alliance, a consortium of private companies anchored by Accenture LLP.

Under the contract, the private sector promised to modernize the system by using call centers and the Internet. The state told 2,000 of its employees they were losing their jobs and launched the new system in Travis and Hays counties.

The commission claimed that a modernized system run by private companies would reduce workload for staff and improve services to clients. Clients would benefit from state-of-the-art technology, and taxpayers would save hundreds of millions of dollars. This sounds good in theory, but the reality has been a disaster.

Public assistance has become harder to get, and claimed savings never materialized. In May, the state postponed extending the new system and begged a thousand state workers to stay on the job.

It turns out that signing up for public assistance is not like buying movie tickets on Fandango. For many reasons, including a desire to hold down costs, the state has a complicated set of rules about who is entitled to what. It also must verify eligibility.

No one opposes the vision of a state-of-the-art system that increases access to services while saving money. Both are worthy goals. But the state erroneously assumed that poorly trained, low-wage workers could do the jobs of highly trained, higher-wage state employees. In fact, the savings promised by the plan's backers came not from more efficient ways to help clients, but by cutting staff and paying less.

The state's old way of doing things also meant running this complicated system with too few people. Despite growing numbers of Texans in need, the Legislature cut eligibility staff by 40 percent between 1997 and 2004. This doubled workload and compromised services. Disruptions in benefits were common. No one was satisfied with the old way of doing things, which looks good only by comparison.

No matter how the state divides duties between the public and private sectors, it needs enough trained staff. As citizens who want to ensure that those who need help get help, we have to be willing to pay for it.

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