State failures led to workers' not being paid

Audit criticizes Department of Public Welfare for mismanaging transition.

When the aides who cared for his elderly mother did not get paid for several months early this year, Joe Konrath sought help from the state, which had hired the payroll company responsible for cutting the checks.

Konrath feared that if the aides didn't get paid, they'd eventually stop showing up to help his 85-year-old mother, who uses a wheelchair. He said the Department of Public Welfare couldn't have cared less. He said it referred him to the payroll service and absolved itself of any responsibility.

"They made a mockery of the people who were looking to them for assistance," said Konrath, of Allentown.

As steamed as he still is at the payroll company, PCG Public Partnerships LLC of Boston, he's even more angry now about how the state responded to his request for help after reading an audit that was released Thursday.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said his investigation found the Department of Public Welfare had failed to properly manage the payroll system for home-care aides for years. He said those problems surfaced when the department consolidated the operations from 36 payroll services to one, Public Partnerships, in January.

The new provider did not have enough time to prepare for its enormous task and did not have the information it needed to do the job because the state hadn't held previous payroll providers accountable and records were in shambles, the audit alleges.

DePasquale said the audit found "long-term mismanagement of home care worker payroll providers caused undue financial and emotional strain on tens of thousands of people. Thousands of workers had paychecks delayed for up to four months."

There are about 20,000 independent care workers in Pennsylvania. They aren't medical professionals but they help people with bathing, dressing, preparing meals and other tasks that allow them to remain in their homes instead of moving to nursing homes.

The aides essentially are freelancers. On paper, their employers are the families they provide care for. They're paid with Medicaid funds, a combination of state and federal money. The Department of Public Welfare administers the program, with Public Partnerships handling payroll.

Last week's audit was prompted by complaints from aides who were not getting paid at the beginning of the year and from families of care recipients like Konrath who feared their caregivers would quit. State lawmakers received the same complaints.

The Department of Public Welfare refuted many of the findings, including that the switch has cost taxpayers money instead of saving money and that there continues to be lax oversight.

Welfare Secretary Beverly Mackereth issued a statement blaming her predecessors for failing to oversee the program and leaving her administration to clean up the mess.

"We proactively made this transition to ensure the safety of participants and to meet our obligations to taxpayers to create a sustainable system, free of abuse and misuse," she said.

She apologized for the "hardships" some caregivers and families experienced and said the system is "running smoothly" now.

A home-care aide and a care recipient disputed that Thursday on a conference call organized by union officials who criticized how Gov. Tom Corbett's administration handled the issue.

Patricia Schamm of Williamsport said she didn't get paid on time last week. She said she went without pay for three weeks earlier this year, forcing her to eat cereal for dinner.

"This whole experience was very exhausting and stressful," Schamm said.

German Parodi, who receives care from a home aide and is chairman of the Consumer Workforce Council in Philadelphia, said his attendant still was waiting for pay from September.

Public Partnerships declined to say much, citing the fact that the audit examined the state's performance, not the company's.

The welfare department's response in the audit "accurately portrays that we are successfully paying workers and upholding the rules of the program effectively," spokeswoman Dina Baker told me.

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