Despite repeated warnings going back more than a decade, Orange County officials have failed to replace a seriously flawed case management system for severely disabled people that crashes on a weekly basis and creates errors in financial accounting, according to grand jurors and county auditors.
Staff who use the software, known as ePAGES, “use words like exasperating, nightmarish, and horrifying to describe the current state of the system,” grand jurors wrote in a report this May.
The antiquated software is used by two key county agencies: the public guardian’s office, which is responsible for the well-being and finances of thousands of severely mentally or physically disabled people, and the public administrator’s office, which oversees the estates of people who die without obvious heirs.
“There is a general sense of impending doom among users that [the system] is near its breaking point and no viable back-up plan exists,” grand jurors wrote. The system is in “constant danger of becoming non-functional…(and) shuts down completely for hours and even full workdays.”
A report last week by county Auditor-Controller Eric Woolery’s office echoed many of those concerns, describing the system as a “critical” weakness that exposes the county to serious risk.
The computer system – which was created in 1999 – tracks millions of dollars in funds, as well as helping case workers prepare for court hearings, process hundreds of legal documents and benefits, and manage numerous other legal, health, property and financial information.
Among the software’s most serious problems is that it creates false financial information, according to the grand jury report.
“Several staff have reported inexplicable accounting variances, where transactions have been entered correctly but show up in the database incorrectly, resulting in a false accounting balance,” the report states.
Yet the software glitch that causes the errors can’t be fixed, the grand jury added, making it likely that more financial errors will continue to take place.
It’s unclear whether the problems have brought significant harm to disabled people the county is required to look after.
The officials who oversee the offices – District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Health Care Agency Director Mark Refowitz – say they recognize the need for new software and are working on getting a replacement.
The new software is expected to be completed around March of next year, Rackauckas wrote in a July 15 letter to Woolery.
Yet the flaws have known for over a decade, and past promises to replace the system have repeatedly been broken.
A 2005 report by county auditors urged that it be replaced as soon as possible, saying the system “is swiftly becoming unstable, unusable and outdated.”
But over the ensuing years, managers have repeatedly blown deadlines to get a new system up and running.
Seven years ago, grand jurors criticized officials for not having replaced the system by promised deadlines in 2008 and 2009, saying management had failed to get a replacement system “in a timely and reasonable period.”
Now, long after that revised target date – and more than two years after Rackauckas and Refowitz took over the offices – the problematic system is still in place.
The software replacement project “is at a complete standstill,” wrote grand jurors in their recent report. “Eleven years, three [requests for contract proposals], and many thousands of wasted dollars later, the Public Administrator/Public Guardian has been unable to produce a new case management system.”
The top job had been held by an elected official, John Williams, and the second-in-command was Rackauckas’ then-fiancée – and now wife – Peggi Buff.
Amid the controversy, Williams and Buff were ousted from their jobs. Rackauckas ended up taking over the public administrator’s office in February 2014, while and the public guardian went to the Health Care Agency.
After Buff was ousted in 2011, she was quietly given a $95,000-per-year job at the county’s OC Community Resources department. The volunteer coordinator job was never publicly posted for other interested applicants to apply and she got the job during a hiring freeze, according to the Orange County Register.
As of last year, Buff was still working for the county, making $145,000 in total compensation.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].