The first program in the nation focused on getting welfare recipients employed who live with barriers to working such as physical disability or drug addiction, the city’s WeCARE program has faced scrutiny since its inception two and a half years ago. Criticisms of WeCARE’s effectiveness were renewed last week at a scheduled city oversight hearing – and underlined by a bombshell report published the same day.

In Feb. 2005 the city’s welfare agency, Human Resources Administration, granted two vendors, Arbor Education and Training and FEGS Health and Human Services System, three-year contracts worth more than $200 million combined to administer the Wellness, Comprehensive Assessment, Rehabilitation and Employment (WeCARE) program. It was intended to help 45,600 sick and disabled New York City welfare recipients find work or attain federal assistance. A recent survey conducted by Community Voices Heard (CVH), an activist group of and for low-income New Yorkers, painted a picture of a service system marred by incompetence and delays at every step – as did an internal audit performed by Arbor itself, detailed in the Daily News the morning of the hearing Oct. 22.

City Councilman Bill de Blasio, chair of the General Welfare Committee, took Human Resources Administration (HRA) Commissioner Robert Doar to task over the alleged mismanagement, including poor staff training and inadequate communication between Arbor and HRA.

De Blasio cited the internal audit that described an uninformed staff with high turnover rates and a disproportionate focus on what clients have not done and questioned whether the city should extend the vendor’s contracts – set to expire at the end of this year – for another three years. “It seems to be a very clear picture of inconsistency and lack of managerial control and oversight,” said de Blasio.

Commissioner Doar read a written statement that defended the program and urged the committee to consider the enormous task involved when implementing such a substantial service system. “I’d like to do better,” said Doar, but added, “When I look at where we’ve been and where we are now, I think where we want to get to is possible if we continue on this path of improvement.”

The committee’s briefing paper showed deficiencies in all stages of the program—from enrollment to assessment to support. In the fall of 2006, HRA reported that its Job Center had referred 119,885 people to WeCARE, but according to Mayor’s Management Reports only 24,900 people were enrolled in the program by the spring of 2007. At that time, Doar testified that 81 percent of enrolled clients had completed the initial assessment process. In the CVH study – involving 700 WeCARE participants who agreed to be surveyed – only about half the respondents said they agreed with the results of their assessment, however, because of issues like superficial physicals that overlooked participants' ongoing medical problems. The briefing paper also cited numbers provided by Doar that show just 15 percent of those who completed the assessment had found employment, and just 11.7 percent of WeCARE clients successfully obtained federal assistance in 2007 – compared to a national average success rate of 29.3 percent for adult applicants' initial federal disability applications.

In his statement, Doar said that WeCARE is a “complex and evolving program with multiple interconnecting components.” He noted the difficulty preparing a “multidisciplinary staff” to implement “the program’s multifaceted policies and procedures ... [for a] significantly higher volume of referrals than originally projected.”

Doar also partly placed responsibility for the program’s shortcomings on the clients themselves. “WeCARE clients often focus on their ‘disabilities’ rather than their ‘abilities.’ Difficulties in modifying this perception make it a challenge to engage clients in vocational rehabilitation activities, work, education and training.”

A Crown Heights woman named Annette, 55, said that she left her job as a dental hygienist two years ago because of health issues and in 2006 received a referral to WeCARE. A single mother and a diabetic with severe arthritis and vision problems, Annette said that her eyesight was not taken into account when she did the computer-based portion of the program’s intake assessment. “They sat me down in front of the computer and I couldn’t see the screen. They just classified me as a dummy.”

Annette was deemed “temporarily unemployable” and placed in a volunteer position at a Fort Greene church kitchen. “The [case manager] had no regard for my condition. I can’t stand all day with my arthritis.” The experience left her disillusioned with the program. “There’s no communication and there isn’t any information for us. It’s a lot of paper pushing and not a lot of one-on-one support,” she said.   

De Blasio also expressed concern that HRA has not adopted a sanction plan to appropriately punish the two vendors for inadequate performance. Doar said the vendors are held accountable by “the use of performance-based milestone payments to fund over 60 percent of the program.” Payments to vendors are made as clients complete each phase, from assessments to job retention. According to the city’s Financial Management System, the two vendors have been paid more than $154 million of their $201.5 million contracts.

Still, De Blasio remained incredulous about the commissioner’s support for optioning another three years on the vendors’ contracts. “This is a lot of money, and I’m a little surprised on the commonsense level that you would say in this contracting process to give these contracts a second chance.” Although he supports the intended goals of the WeCARE program, he said he doesn't accept the present version, "warts and all."

- Rob Fischer