Roderick L. Bremby, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s pick to run the state Department of Social Services, has worked for more than 20 years in government, implemented new technology systems and served on the board of the authority that runs the Kansas Medicaid program.

On Tuesday, as Malloy introduced him, Bremby emphasized another credential not listed on his resume.

“I understand some of the concerns that our clients will be facing,” Bremby, the former secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, told reporters. “I was born to a single parent home. I lived on the wrong side of the tracks. I helped to integrate a public education system in Alabama during a segregated era.”

Bremby, Roderick 3-8-11

Malloy and Bremby

“I think I can empathize with many of our clients,” he added.

If confirmed by the legislature, Bremby, 51, will take over a department with a budget of more than $5 billion and responsibility for serving more than 750,000 people who rely on its safety net programs, primarily Medicaid. He will face significant challenges, including the need to modernize the department’s outdated computer system and finding ways to keep up with rising demand for services with a diminished workforce.

With 1,962 employees, DSS is nearly twice the size of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The Kansas agency has an operating budget of more than $230 million and more than 1,000 full-time staff; its responsibilities include public health programs, credentialing health care workers, licensing and regulating health and child care facilities, investigating disease outbreaks, and regulating public water supplies, industrial discharges, wastewater treatment systems, landfills and air emissions.

In nearly eight years as an agency leader in Kansas, Bremby oversaw the implementation of several changes aimed at improving efficiency, including an immunization registry with more than 9 million records, a web-based system to report birth and death records, and the introduction of paperless systems for purchasing, personnel and document routing. In social services, the public sector needs to become as responsive to clients as the private sector, he said Tuesday.

“In years gone by, face-to-face, one-on-one was central, very important,” he said. “But with the volumes we’re seeing, we have to process more information faster, in a much more timely way than ever before.”

Malloy said Bremby has the right skills to oversee the implementation of new technology. The department’s current eligibility management system, a mainframe computer system, was developed in 1989 and was one factor federal officials cited last month as a barrier to improving the performance of the state’s food stamp program, one of the worst in the nation. Malloy’s proposed budget includes money for beginning the process of replacing the eligibility management system, which is expected to take several years and could cost between $120 million and $150 million. Much of the cost could be reimbursed by the federal government.

Malloy also said Bremby has the right mindset to make needed changes at DSS and pointed to his experience in Kansas.

“One of the things that initially attracted me to Rod’s candidacy is his ability to think independently and make judgments even in very difficult times,” Malloy said. In particular, he cited Bremby’s denial of a permit for a controversial coal-fired power plant in Kansas because of concerns about the effects of carbon dioxide emissions.

News accounts have cited speculation that Bremby’s position on the power plant led to his dismissal in November by then-Gov. Mark Parkinson. At the time, a second power plant application was pending. His successor later approved it.

“I’m no stranger to controversy, difficult decisions or challenging life circumstances,” Bremby said Tuesday.

Leaders of agencies that work with DSS said they were heartened by Bremby’s comments on the importance of technology.

James Gatling, president of New Opportunities, Inc., a Waterbury agency that serves more than 77,000 people in more than 40 towns, attended Malloy’s announcement to see what the future commissioner had to say. Gatling said it was refreshing that Malloy picked an outsider.

With less money, improving technology is the best way to address the growing need for services, said Gatling, who also serves as president of the Connecticut Association for Community Action.

“I’m impressed so far,” he said.

Sharon Langer, a senior policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children, praised Bremby’s experience running an agency focused on providing basic services to vulnerable families, but she wondered how involved he was with the state’s Medicaid program. Bremby’s department did not run Medicaid, but he sat on the board of the authority that administered it.

Many people outside the agency have been concerned about having the right people in the right jobs at DSS, with the right tools, she said.

“It would be great if this commissioner is in a position to relatively quickly assess the needs of the agency so that he can make the improvements necessary to move forward,” she said.

The department oversees programs including Medicaid, winter heating aid, cash assistance, childcare subsidies, elderly prescription assistance and some employment services.

DSS will also play a key role in implementing federal health care reform, which is expected to add more than 100,000 people to the Medicaid program DSS runs in 2014.

Bremby was appointed to his previous job in 2003 by then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who is now secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He said they have maintained a working relationship. That could prove useful as the state implements the health reform law and competes for federal dollars. Many of the programs DSS administers receive federal funding, and changes to some, including Medicaid, often require federal approval.

The department has struggled with a surge in demand for services as its staffing levels have fallen. The current staffing level is down nearly 20 percent from 2001.

The food stamp program, in particular, has drawn attention after federal officials warned that the state could face financial sanctions if the program’s performance does not improve significantly.

The program ranks worst in the nation in the rate of wrongly denying or terminating food stamps, and among the worst in paying inaccurate benefit levels and missing deadlines for processing applications.

Commissioner Michael P. Starkowski has attributed the problems largely to having too few staff and outdated technology while demand for services rises. The department recently received approval to fill vacant positions for handling program eligibility and hire retired eligibility workers on a temporary basis to handle food stamp applications.

As commissioner, Bremby will also oversee major changes to the way the Medicaid programs, which together serve nearly 600,000 people, are administered. The HUSKY program, which serves close to 400,000 mostly low-income children and their families, will be moved out of managed care, and other Medicaid programs for low-income adults and people with disabilities will be moved into a system in which care is more coordinated than it is now. The new system is expected to be in place by Jan. 1, 2012.

Before working in state government, Bremby worked as an assistant research professor at the University of Kansas, where he led a work group on health promotion and community development. He spent 10 years as assistant city manager and chief operating officer of Lawrence, Kansas, and four years as assistant to the city manager in Fort Worth, Texas, where he directed the implementation of an enhanced 911 system and an accounting and management reporting system.

Bremby graduated from the University of Kansas in 1982 and received a master of public administration degree from the university in 1984. He served on the board of Kansas Action for Children and founded the Lawrence Partnership for Children and Youth. He also served as president of the Lawrence, Kansas, branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 2007, Bremby and his then-wife filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the result of health problems that required her to stop working. They are repaying their debts and will be done repaying them next January. They are now divorced and Bremby is remarried.

On Tuesday, Bremby called the bankruptcy “a very humbling experience” and said his family was no different than the many Americans who experience personal bankruptcy because of medical reasons.

Rep. Peter A. Tercyak, D-New Britain, co-chairman of the Human Services Committee, said Bremby’s experience with a medical-related bankruptcy gives him something in common with the many people who have struggled with it.

Tercyak said he was pleased to hear Bremby talk about the need for technology, and he noted the difficulty DSS workers have in handling their caseloads with such an outdated system.

“It’s amazing how the wrong technology can stand in the way of doing the most good,” he said.

Tercyak said he’s heard from many people who had been discouraged that there had not yet been a change in the leadership at DSS. He said he told them it showed how hard Malloy was working to get someone who could make a difference.

“I’m praying to gosh he’s going to be a transformational leader,” he said.

Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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