Credit: Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

Last fall the District replaced the antiquated computer system it had been using since the early 1990s to enroll residents in food stamps and cash assistance. The new system was supposed to be an upgrade.

Instead, needy residents and Department of Human Services staff have endured months of prolonged wait times as the new system has repeatedly suffered outages since it went live in October. Already in dire situations that have driven them to seek assistance, frustrated members of the public lashed out physically against DHS employees.

“The implementation of the new system I hope won’t be judged on what was sort of the worst situation on the worst day,” says DHS Director Laura Zeilinger, referring to an incident where someone threw a water bottle at an employee at one of the service centers where D.C. residents apply for benefits.

“But, understanding the pressure that people were under, I also don’t want to understate how challenging it is for customers of the department and for staff,” Zeilinger says.

In another incident, employees reported that a woman angered by the protracted delays threw a soiled diaper at service center staff.

“It has been nothing but problems,” says Sabrina Brown, the president of the local union that represents DHS employees.

“I feel for the public, because their patience is short when they come in,” she adds.

Employees brought their concerns to their union leadership in November, saying customers had physically and verbally assaulted them amid unusually long wait times attributed to the new information technology system, the D.C. Access System.

“The employees are fearful that the customers could become more confrontational, due to the glitches with the DCAS system,” Brown wrote in an email to department officials in December.

In February, Brown filed a formal written grievance on behalf of DHS employees. The union requested that management either return to using the technology that preceded the D.C. Access System or provide hazard pay. It also sought a protective glass partition between employees and customers.

“As you are aware, the employees service a very vulnerable population that is constantly and desperately seeking assistances for their basic survival needs,” Brown wrote.

Two days after the grievance was submitted, fights broke out at the Anacostia service center. A DHS employee reported the incident in an email obtained by City Paper, which described “a brawl” in which “bottles were thrown at front desk staff.”

The message concluded, “I fear for my safety in the waiting area at Anacostia.”

Prior to the D.C. Access System, DHS was still using an eligibility system implemented in 1992 that ran on mainframe computers.

The 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act provided an enticing opportunity to replace the outdated system. Under that law, the District was able to use federal money to modernize its eligibility and enrollment technology—not just for health insurance programs but for food stamps and cash assistance. The goal is for D.C. to use a single system for an array of programs.

“There’s a huge investment that we were able to leverage from the federal government,” Zeilinger says.

The budget for the D.C. Access System’s capital costs is about $240 million at DHS, not including operating costs. The federal government has provided the majority of the funding. 

The system has been plagued with software and hardware problems since it went live at DHS in October. At their height, outages were severe. “There were a few times where they were extended—an entire day—but it was mostly a few hours at a time,” Zeilinger says. “But it’s a big deal, even a few hours, given the volume that we see every single day.”

There was also a problem where benefits had not loaded onto Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, yet the D.C. Access System indicated they had. EBT cards are used for food stamps and cash assistance in D.C.

The rules governing these programs are elaborate, and instructing a computer to determine eligibility and enroll residents properly is no simple task. The system also has to adhere to requirements about the generation of notices and communicate with databases that verify applicant income.

At the busy service center in Anacostia, one problem was decidedly less abstract: the weather. “It seemed that every time there was precipitation, our system crashed,” Zeilinger says.

According to DHS, it is likely that “humidity in the air or direct contact with moisture was the cause of hardware failure.” After the building’s wiring was repaired, the outages became less frequent.

In December, the District government’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer began directly managing the D.C. Access System alongside DHS, bringing expertise with big technology projects and deploying fixes regularly. Downtime remains a problem, but DHS says that in March and April, the situation improved significantly.

Before the D.C. Access System went live, it underwent rigorous testing, the department says. The District is at a disadvantage compared to states that can roll out new systems one county at a time, testing new technology in live environments. As a single jurisdiction whose residents may apply for benefits at any of its five service centers across the city, D.C. could not follow that playbook.

“We did everything we realistically could do without a live pilot,” Zeilinger says.