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Published: Tuesday, 3/22/2005

Day-care centers pan software

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Brandi Chasteen, 6, listens to Ronda Hice, owner of Casey's Castle, read to her at the day-care center on West Alexis Road. Brandi Chasteen, 6, listens to Ronda Hice, owner of Casey's Castle, read to her at the day-care center on West Alexis Road.
SIMMONS / BLADE Enlarge

Between changing diapers, feeding babies, and playing with toddlers at her West Toledo day-care center, Ronda Hice figured she had more than enough to keep her busy without getting ensnared in state and county government bureaucracies.

Ms. Hice, owner of Casey's Castle Inc., and other day-care providers in Lucas County have been wrestling with a software system the county implemented last year that has caused inaccurate payments and delays in reimbursements.

On top of that, owners of day-care centers in the county are fighting a state proposal to pay them at the same rate that providers in surrounding rural counties are paid for taking care of children whose families receive subsidized day care.

The county's software program has plagued some day-care providers since it was installed last year. County officials chose the program in hopes of revamping a system made inefficient by an excess of paper shuffling.

Carol Rehm, deputy director of Lucas County Job and Family Services, said the program has made the system more efficient in some ways, at least for the agency, but she knows providers are struggling with it. Ms. Hice said she's been bogged down by paperwork.

"They mail us invoices for the children who are receiving money from their agencies," said Ms. Hice, who has operated her Alexis Road day-care center since 1994. "I have to pay someone to transfer all the information from my sign-in and out sheet over to their sign-in and out sheet. Now we have to manually, on paper, do all these calculations and send it in to them. It's so time consuming."

Ms. Hice isn't alone in her frustrations. She and a group of day-care operators have been working with county officials to solve some of the problems the software has presented.

Peggy Hartbarger, who operates two centers in Maumee called Hand in Hand, said she thinks Job and Family Services officials have been trying to work through the issues associated with the new system, but she favors scrapping it or significantly altering the process. She said that small businesses can't afford to invest so many hours with billing issues and that routine disruptions of cash flow cause a hardship.

"When their money isn't flowing, that's a big problem," she said. "How do you operate a business without any money?"

The providers have a powerful ally on their side. Tina Skeldon Wozniak, president of the county commissioners, expressed her frustration at a recent meeting about how long it is taking to iron out the problems day-care operators are having with the system and the lack of a point person to tackle the issue.

"We're taking it seriously," Ms. Wozniak said after the meeting. "It's gone on too long because we have a system that might not be meeting their needs."

Ms. Rehm said the software system, which cost the county $185,000, has done a lot to take care of internal bookkeeping issues. Nonetheless, she said day-care providers who want to avoid using the computer program soon will be allowed to submit billing information to the agency through handwritten or computerized spreadsheets.

"We don't them to have to hire extra people so they can provide invoices to us," she said.

Apart from the software issue, local day-care providers also have been urging the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services to reconsider its proposal to reimburse them at the same rate as rural northwest Ohio county day-care providers.

Using research conducted by Ohio State University, the department classified Lucas County as a mid-sized community and set its reimbursement rate based on the market in northwest Ohio.

For instance, the proposed reimbursement rate to take care of a toddler for a week at a Lucas County day-care center is $142, but the rate in a large metropolitan area such as Cleveland or Columbus is $166.

Mike Tersigni, president of Toddlers School, which operates seven centers in the area, said it's more expensive to operate in Lucas County than it is in less populated rural counties like Fulton or Williams counties. He said the reimbursements for children eligible for subsidies need to reflect that difference or some day-care providers may stop accepting children from lower income families. He said about 400 of the 700 children who attend his schools receive subsidies.

"We're evaluating limiting the number of subsidized children we can accept," Mr. Tersigni said. "The losses with the JFS clients are getting to be so great that the private pay can't subsidize it any more."

Lucas County providers will receive a slight increase in the next fiscal year, but it would still be based on market rates of surrounding counties. Despite the providers' objections, the new rates, which become effective July 1, have been set at an appropriate level, said Dennis Evans, a spokesman for Ohio Job and Family Services.

"The rates for Lucas County are higher than they were," Mr. Evans said. "This is a regional approach looking at the going rate, the cost of living, and what the going rate for child care is in those areas."

The day-care providers have sought the help of local state legislators to change the reimbursement rates. State Rep. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills) said he favors setting the rates on a county-by-county basis and is exploring whether such a system can be instituted by legislative action if Job and Family Services won't adopt the policy on its own.

Contact Dale Emch at:

daleemch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6061.



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