Benefit checks are put at risk

Computer viruses hit

needy clients might miss payments

September 30, 2006|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun reporter

Viruses have crippled state computers used to track and distribute welfare benefits, sending officials scrambling to fix the equipment and raising concerns among advocates that needy clients could be left without assistance.

Officials said yesterday that the problem - diagnosed about a week ago - was under control, and that the attack had not delayed benefits such as food stamps and emergency cash.

"Things aren't falling apart," said Kirk A. Grothe, chief information officer for the Office of Technology for Human Services, a division of the Maryland Department of Human Resources. "Payments are going out."

But there is evidence to the contrary, and representatives of not-for-profit organizations that work with the poor warned that the real test could come next week, the start of a new month, when most welfare clients receive their benefits for the month to come.

John Miller, an unemployed real estate agent in Southwest Baltimore, said his social worker told him that the viruses had severely handicapped the city's Department of Social Services office, an arm of the state Department of Human Resources, and that his benefits were several weeks late.

The payments - $151 in food stamps and $185 in emergency cash - came yesterday, Miller said, but only after the social worker was finally able to get his individual computer to run properly.

"If they can't get out those checks to the people who need them, they are going to have a serious problem," Miller said.

News of the virus attacks worried many in the state's nonprofit sector and prompted at least one organization to send e-mails to social workers warning them of possible welfare payment glitches next week.

"Many of you have asked about reports that state [Social Services] computers have been struck with a virus and that this virus may delay the payment of certain benefits," wrote Kevin Lindamood, vice president for external affairs with Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore. Lindamood asked co-workers to notify him immediately if a client was not receiving his or her benefits.

In addition, Grothe said the virus attacks have delayed the implementation of a new computer system called "Chessie" in Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Cecil and Baltimore counties. Those counties had been scheduled to switch to the new system this Tuesday but are now expected to begin using it Oct. 10, he said.

Officials agreed to the delay, he said, out of concern that technicians would be stretched too thin as they fight the viruses, not because of previously reported operating problems with Chessie.

"The delay wasn't because Chessie wasn't ready," Grothe said. "It was to avoid a drain on other resources."

DHR officials are under pressure to get the Chessie project off the ground after nearly 10 years of delays and budget overruns. The system - officially called the Maryland Children's Electronic Social Services Information Exchange - has cost about $67 million to build, but there have been reports that the system is seriously flawed.

Grothe said the viruses had not infected the Chessie system, which is up and running in many jurisdictions.

Technicians had abated the viruses in 19 Maryland counties by yesterday afternoon, leaving just Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Harford, Frederick and Washington counties with problems, he said.

Grothe said the city's social services system should be back to normal by next week, when a delivery of 600 new personal computers is expected. The other four counties were scheduled for fixes by the end of the day yesterday, he said.

"The city has some of the oldest infrastructure, and we have had technicians there every day, all day since the viruses were detected," Grothe said.

He and his staff are investigating the source or sources of the viruses. He said the state's social services system was hit by a large number of viruses at one time, although he would not specify the exact number for fear of compromising the investigation.

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