Watchdog group not sold on state spending for ‘customer service’ snooping

By Bill Poovey
Published April 30, 2014

State officials spending $50,000 to monitor comments on Facebook and other social media about Medicaid are wasting taxpayer money, a spokesman for a government watchdog group said. S.C. Policy Council spokesman Barton Swaim said the electronic snooping is another example of bureaucracy continuing to grow.

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Medicaid, or the Department of Health and Human Services in general, “is just a big fat bureaucracy of mostly federal money,” Swaim said, adding that the state’s $50,000 payout for the monitoring by Clemson University students is “typical. If you are looking for waste in Medicaid, this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Swaim said that instead of growing such bureaucratic activities, the Medicaid program could be made more productive by allowing enrollees to have debit cards that can only be used for health care services.

“Medicaid is supposed to be about helping poor people,” he said. “What it is about is maintaining a vast multimillion-dollar bureaucracy and this is just a very small part of that.”

A top technical executive in the Department of Health and Human Services said paying for students to monitor social media has been an effective new customer service strategy.

“I do think it’s productive,” said John Supra, a deputy director and chief information officer at the state agency. He said HHS is the only state agency paying to monitor Facebook, Twitter, bloggers and other social media as a customer service strategy. Supra arranged the electronic eavesdropping deal started last fall that has students in Clemson University’s Social Analytics Institute collecting the data.

Supra said he is undecided about extending the service for another year. Supra said monitoring for complaints and questions allows the agency to follow up and resolve any problems that are mentioned. Supra said he can identify “between five and 10 instances” where the agency has followed up on comments about its services since the monitoring started. The agency administers a Medicaid program for more than 1 million South Carolinians.

“We are not out there trying to uncover bad … We are not digging,” Supra said. He said “people need to be reminded that when they do use social media, everything they put out there is generally public information. We are one of many” who can see it.

Insititute Director Jason Thatcher, a professor in the College of Business and Behavioral Science, said students conduct the monitoring. Thatcher said he is not aware of any other state agency that has “been systematic” with such a strategy.

The Policy Council’s Swaim said monitoring Facebook is a waste of money and is not helping poor people.

“Nothing with the word university student and Medicaid can possibly be good,” he said.

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