Thursday, December 06, 2007

"Texans waiting for food stamps, other programs"

Texans waiting for food stamps, other programs
Corrie MacLaggan
Austin American Statesman
Applications for food stamps and other programs are backlogged across Texas because there aren't enough state workers trained to process cases in the TIERS computer system, state officials acknowledged Tuesday.
The percentage of food stamp applications processed on time in October was the lowest since January. Texas continues to add cases to the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System despite a recent warning from the state auditor that the software is not ready for use beyond a Central Texas pilot region.
Yes, and they are going to continue adding until a "rollout" regardless of what the state auditors says becomes necessary once ALL cases end up in TIERS.
The delays are worst in Central Texas . For example, of the 25,417 Austin-area food stamp applications handled in October, a third of them did not get processed within the 30 days required by the federal government. Statewide, 14.1 percent of food stamp applications were processed late in October, the most recent month for which statistics are available.
The sad thing about this is in Austin, word is the workers are having to see anywhere from 20 to 30 appointments PER DAY.  With the policy and complexity of the dynamics of various families- this all but guarantees that the cases aren't being looked at like we would back when 10 per day was considered too many.  When you are seeing that many each day, there is no time left "in between" appointments to complete other cases where information has been provided after the interview.  This also causes workers to have to work late, work weekends, come in early- each and every day just to stay somewhat on top of their game.  The lost voices in this ARE the workers, given that no one seems to realize that while we are employees of the state of texas, we are ALSO mothers, fathers, caregivers, etc at home.  By the time some workers GET home, it's late and time to go to bed to get up early and do it again.  This is the reason staffing is the way it is.  You cannot expect a worker (especially in a major city like Austin,TX) to stay in this mess rather than go somewhere else.  It is wrong when it comes to the clients that are having to wait, and it's wrong when it comes to the workers who are breaking their backs trying to do the best job they can do.
"There is very clearly a TIERS workload issue," said Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Commission. "We're trying to staff up. We do think that with additional staff ... we'll get through this hump."
It seems as though for every extra worker that gets hired, 2 have left.  The starting pay for caseworkers is not enough or does not match the level of work they have to do.  Yes, they are being paid overtime- but this is not a guarantee that it will always be that way.  Historically, the State NEVER paid overtime, but rather would convert any hours worked over 40 in a week into time and half VACATION/COMP time.  I can assure anyone out there who questiosn this that many of the workers suffering through this right now would not be if they were to end the paying of overtime. 
She couldn't say exactly how many people are waiting. The backlogs, she said, are due in part to the addition of statewide cases from a new women's health program. State Auditor John Keel warned last month that TIERS is cumbersome.
"Every day, more and more cases are being put into TIERS ... without an infrastructure to deal with those cases," said Katie Romich of the Texas State Employees Union. "Workers are frustrated."
Rumor has it that ART staff across the state that are having to interview those clients NOT in pilot areas but who ARE in the TIERS system are seeing clients 40-60 days after the client applied.  Mind you, as has been said on this blog before and is mentioned in this article, Food Stamp FEDERAL POLICY is very clear- a client MUST be certified or denied no later than 30 days from the date they filed their application.  Obviously, this is not happening.
About 3.7 million Texans are enrolled in food stamps, Medicaid (a federal-state health insurance program) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. All the programs are affected by the delays.
Demetria Johnson, an Austin mother of two, said she tried to renew food stamps in June. She's still waiting.
"I do get paid weekly, but it's still hard for me to buy groceries," said Johnson, 28, who said she earns $9 an hour at a department store. "I fall off on the other bills."
Celia Hagert of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income Texans, said, "It's really not acceptable to tell someone they have to wait for months to put food on the table."
TIERS, envisioned by the Legislature in 1999, is a Web-based system meant to modernize the state's 1970s-era enrollment software.
"TIERS does so much more than the current system does," Goodman said. "Not to mention, it's technology we can actually support going into the future."
In January, the state debuted the Texas Women's Health Program, which provides gynecological exams and birth control to 70,000 low-income women. State workers have used TIERS to process the case of any woman who applies for that program — and anyone in her household who seeks food stamps, Medicaid or temporary family assistance.
"The thing that has been somewhat of a surprise is how many of those women and their families have applied for other services," Goodman said.
Surprised?  No, the surprise came to them when they realized that by applying for that program it threw ALL their cases in TIERS.  I cannot tell you how many clients have asked local office staff that are not housed in the pilot area to please switch them BACK to the old system, and please get their cases OUT of TIERS.  These women aren't people who have never been on benefits who suddenly get on WHP and then start applying for everything we offer.  No.  Many clients are very frustrated in their dealings with 2-1-1 and will continue to be as long as the 'status quo' remains.
Adding 50,000 foster care cases to TIERS this year had an impact, Goodman said.
And what exactly was the justification in adding all those cases?  Pilot area is struggling to keep up, so what better way to fix that?  Oh, let's add about 50,000 more cases to TIERS.  So now if a child has been in foster care goes home and has to be added to their families case, it now throws all of THOSE cases into TIERS. 
The Children's Health Insurance Program, which serves 341,000, is scheduled to be added to TIERS next year.
Any idea how many clients we have who receive Food Stamps and also CHIP?  This will throw their FOOD STAMP case into TIERS as well.  Local office staff OUTSIDE of the pilot area are not equipped to deal with the large numbers of TIERS clients that this will create.  Since the Feds have told them to not rollout- this is the State's way of doing it anyway.  Instead of a controlled rollout by county, this will just add thousands of cases "undercover". 
"Until we have eliminated every bug in TIERS," said state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, "we don't need to be integrating anything into it."
Unfortunately, they are going to increase the TIERS clients.  And the local offices will, in turn, begin losing people again.

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1 comment:

Athens County Job & Family Services said...

Demand on food banks reflects lack of adequate benefits through “safety net” programs
The news has been filled with stories of food pantries and soup kitchens that are struggling to meet the growing problem of hunger. These groups are frequently staffed with volunteers and depend on donations. They deserve our gratitude. The growing demand on food banks reflects the failure of our elected officials to provide adequate benefits through “safety net” programs. What happened to the safety net of Food Stamps, Supplemental Social Security Income and TANF cash assistance? These programs were intended to meet the basic needs of low income citizens. It is extremely distressing to see that the official government policy for feeding hungry people is to rely on the charity of food pantries and soup kitchens.

Forty years ago the Food Stamp program was established to end hunger in America. Yet, it was only designed to provide 75% of what the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined necessary to meet minimum nutritional needs. Poor families were expected to make up the rest with cash. Unfortunately, that is nearly impossible for those who must rely on SSI or TANF. The payment levels for these programs are very low. It is difficult for these people to find extra cash to buy food when they spend every dime available for rent, utilities, and other essentials. As a result our food pantries must deal with constant demands from people who are already receiving help from the safety net.

This is unconscionable. This is not the Depression. People need to be able to get their food from the grocery store and should not have to wait in lines to get a meal or box of food. We cannot continue to rely on the kindness of volunteers and donations to meet a responsibility that we all have towards our less fortunate neighbors. We must insist that our government officials ensure that our safety net does its job.