Private suffering, especially by the poor and the sick, does not often become a political issue. Usually, our powers-that-be are transfixed by property taxes, corporate concerns and electoral power struggles, where well-connected folks with a few dollars in their pockets can make their voices heard.
But in the spring of 2008, the pain of Hoosiers hurt by the privatization of Indiana's welfare program slowly transformed into a hot topic. Governor Daniels' $1.34 billion contract with IBM had led to a rash of incorrect denials of food stamps and health care assistance. In many Indiana communities, emergency food pantries began running out of stock, and private charities found themselves under siege.
In response, simple handbills were circulated to announce a public meeting in Anderson about the privatization, and a handful of people were expected to exchange views. To the surprise of the organizers, a crowd of 200 packed a union hall. Five hundred more went to a subsequent meeting at the convention center in Muncie, many lining up for hours afterward to get a few minutes to share their problems with a state agency representative.
"The Muncie hearing was a game-changer," says John Cardwell, a longtime Indiana health care activist and lobbyist. "After that, I had legislators coming up to me and saying, 'This is the real thing, isn't it?'"
"In the spring of 2008, the pain of Hoosiers hurt by the privatization of Indiana's welfare program slowly transformed into a hot topic."
Cardwell is chair of an ad hoc group of service providers, advocates and welfare consumers called the Committee on Welfare Privatization Issues. The acronym "COWPI" was at first whimsical and temporary. But it endured as commentary on the funk emanating from the deal cut by the governor and then-Family and Social Services Administration Secretary Mitch Roob, formerly a vice president of Affiliated Computer Services Inc., a major subcontractor in the privatization.
Now Governor Daniels has cancelled the IBM contract and thanked the privatization scheme's critics for pushing the issue. Although Cardwell and others emphasize the problems are not solved yet -- much-criticized Affiliated Computer Services remains front and center in the system -- Daniels and Roob's successor, Anne Murphy, deserve credit for making what the governor called "a major mid-course correction."
It took a lot of pushing to correct that course. Legislators from both parties, notably the hard-hit Evansville area, heard horror stories from their constituents and then pressed the governor directly.
Cardwell gives significant credit to the Indiana print media, including the Associated Press, the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette and Anderson Herald-Bulletin. Doing what the medium does best, reporters simultaneously told human stories and uncovered the details showing sky-high cost and basement-low performance by the private contractors.
But Cardwell reserves special praise for the system's clients, who responded to being denied much-needed medicine for their spouses and food for their children not with self-pity but by raising their voices and sharing their stories with legislators, the media and the governor himself.
And, since the process of fixing a broken system is far from complete, the activism isn't finished, either.
"People are still fired up to fight on this issue," says Cardwell. "And they don't want a half-way solution."
Fran Quigley is a visiting professor at the IU School of Law-Indianapolis. He can be reached at email@example.com.