Computer glitch leads to nationwide shutdown of food stamp benefits

An interesting parallel to the Obamacare computer problems; the more complex a system is, the more things that can go wrong with it.

CBS Boston:

People in Ohio, Michigan and 15 other states found themselves unable to use their food stamp debit-style cards on Saturday, after a routine test of backup systems by vendor Xerox Corp. resulted in a system failure.

At about 9 a.m. Saturday, reports from across the country began pouring in that customers' EBT cards were not working in stores.

At 2 p.m., an EBT customer service representative told CBS Boston that the system was currently down for a computer system upgrade.

Xerox spokeswoman Jennifer Wasmer released further details later in the afternoon in an emailed statement.

"While the electronic benefits system is now up and running, beneficiaries in the 17 affected states continue to experience connectivity issues to access their benefits. Technical staff is addressing the issue and expect the system to be restored soon,"  Wasmer said. "Beneficiaries requiring access to their benefits can work with their local retailers who can activate an emergency voucher system where available. We appreciate our clients' patience while we work through this outage as quickly as possible."

Wasmer said the affected states also included Alabama, California, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.

U.S. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said the outage is not related to the government shutdown.

Shoppers left carts of groceries behind at a packed Market Basket grocery store in Biddeford, Maine, because they couldn't get their benefits, said fellow shopper Barbara Colman, of Saco, Maine. The manager put up a sign saying the EBT system was not in use. Colman, who receives the benefits, called an 800 telephone line for the program and it said the EBT system was down due to maintenance, she said.

"That's a problem. There are a lot of families who are not going to be able to feed children because the system is being maintenanced," Colman said. She planned to reach out to local officials. "You don't want children going hungry tonight because of stupidity," she said.

No word on what kind of failure it was, but the fact that the network appeared to go out at different times in different places would suggest a kind of cascade failure of some sort. My understanding is that this kind of glitch is among the hardest to deal with. Some stores apparently never got their machines working again for the day.

The EBT went down at my grocery store in Illinois around 11:30. The "emergency voucher system" is nothing more than one of those old hand operated credit card machines that the merchant has to manually enter the amount when settling up at the end of the day. It's a pain in the neck and is worse if the customer went over their benefit limit for the month with their purchases.

The vulnerability of these complex systems to errors is instructive to just how problematic the Obamacare system is going to be.