Sunday, August 16, 2009

Watchdog: As Texas bureaucracy flounders over food stamp applications, a couple settles for potatoes

Watchdog: As Texas bureaucracy flounders over food stamp applications, a couple settles for potatoes


Unlike everybody else who contacts The Watchdog, Bob of Fort Worth doesn’t want my help. He only wants everyone to understand the horrible state of Texas’ food stamp program.

Bob, who doesn’t want his last name used because he is afraid of getting into a fight with the government, is 78 and lives with his wife on $500 a month from Social Security.

Two years ago, they qualified for food stamps. But the credits on his state-provided electronic debit card — worth about $200 a month — ran out in May.

So what does he do?

"Potatoes are like a dollar for 5 pounds," he said. "So we eat a lot of potatoes. If they’ve got a sale on something — for instance, if regular lettuce is a dollar and a half a head, and they have a sale for 75 cents, we’ll make salads out of lettuce. We find the bargains on something and we’ll eat that this week."

Since May, Bob has been trying to get ahold of someone at the state Health and Human Services office on East Lancaster Avenue in Fort Worth to help him re-qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — a requirement to make sure recipients still need it.

"We sent all our papers, and we kept calling, and they kept putting us off. You couldn’t get anybody down there. Nobody answers the telephone. They had about a dozen people working down there helping people, checking and rechecking them.

"And a woman says, 'Well, we’re planning on getting a new system so it will be about a week.’ And then you don’t get anything. Then finally, a week or so later, they got a recording on their phone. I guess everybody was not getting anything. The recording said, 'If you’re really needing help, if you’re really out of food, call 211 and they’ll get you some food.’ "

The Texas 211 help-line folks told him that he could go to a food bank, but Bob, a military veteran, doesn’t want to do that: "I have to be careful what I eat. I had colon cancer and diabetes. I’m a mess."

Nobody knows how many Bobs there are in Texas. State officials say they believe that one-third of all food stamp applications processed in July were past the 30-day limit allowed by federal law.

That’s 45,000 families like Bob’s that waited more than a month for help, for a phone call back, for a letter, anything. Bob’s wait is three months. How many more are out there waiting?
A spokeswoman for state health services, Stephanie Goodman, says the state doesn’t really know.

The computer system used to process food stamp applications is so outdated that they aren’t counted until they are actually entered into the system.

(Stephanie, really? "so outdated"? More spin from Austin to build TIERS up? Can you imagine if the Dallas area was IN TIERS? Can you? Because even YOU can't deny that a worker can work FAR MORE CASES in SAVERR, in a day, than in TIERS. And, we have no idea? What, the supervisors in Region 3 don't have to submit a lead time report? They have "no idea" how many apps there were waiting to be seen? Surely you jest.)

Applications "sitting on someone’s desk that we have not gotten to" are uncounted, she says.
For sure, there are tens of thousands more.

The problem is so bad that two groups filed a federal lawsuit in Austin last week demanding that the state comply with the 30-daylimit.

The lawsuit is designed to force the state to create a quick plan, says Randall Chapman, executive director of Texas Legal Services Center, which co-filed the suit on behalf of two Irving residents tired of waiting.

"Believe it or not, the two people named in that lawsuit were approved in less than 24 hours," Chapman said. "It was just magic. Their approval letters were hand-delivered to their homes."
Chapman offered his organization’s help to Bob. Goodman, the state official, would have checked into Bob’s case, too, had I asked her. Bob could have been fast-tracked and had food stamps hand-delivered to his door, too. But he told me not to do that. He was adamant.

Chapman said: "Some elderly people feel intimidated, or they don’t want their neighbors knowing they need help. That’s a real shame."

The state is trying to come up with solutions, shortcuts, hiring proposals, abbreviated training procedures, anything to get food to Texans. Next month, the state will begin hiring 656 workers to process applications.

For now, however, the bureaucrats simply cannot get it done.

"We’re processing more cases than ever," Goodman said. "We’ve got more people on the rolls. We’re just not simply keeping up with the increase in demand.  . . . Our staff has been working weekends and long hours, but it’s still not enough. We’re not keeping up."

In Tarrant County, 150,000 people now receive food stamps, compared with 130,000 last year. There would be more if the system worked properly.

As a test, I called the phone number of the East Lancaster Avenue office where Bob keeps striking out. When you push zero for operator, you get this message: "Hi, you’ve reached the general delivery mailbox for the East Lancaster office. However, this mailbox is not set up to have return calls. Please do not leave a message. Press zero for operator so your call will be reverted to our operator. Have a nice day."

I hit zero, and got the same message again. Did it again and again and again.

Meanwhile, Texans are eating potatoes and lettuce and waiting for phone calls and letters that never seem to come.

Getting help

For food stamp problems, call the ombudsman’s office at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission at 877-787-8999.


Here's my only issue with all of this (aside from the comments that people leave on these types of articles- see the link if you want to read them) is that Region 3 (Metroplex) and Region 6 (Houston area) have had issues with timeliness forEVER. It took a LAWSUIT for anyone to take notice? This is NOTHING NEW. It's a SHAME is what it is.


Dave Lieber said...

Thank you for posting my column. I am interested in hearing from employees. Please go to my blog and post your comments on this. This is a good way to share and get the OTHER SIDE of the story ~ Dave Lieber/Star-Telegram

Bird said...

Remember, the Texas legislature contracted to have call centers do most of the work. The call centers have been making big profits from the per call cash cow from the contract. This is the problem, not TIERS vs. SAVERR.

Anonymous said...

Bird, the call centers do not handle region 3 or region 6 functions- only those clients who are in TIERS can use 211 services (the eligibility side of 211)- local offices handle all their own saverr cases. It is ABSOLUTELY about TIERS and SAVERR as well as staffing, etc. I've worked in both SAVERR (for years) and TIERS (for only a couple of years) and I can tell you my ability to process cases has been greatly hindered by TIERS. Not because I'm "new" to it, but because I know what I was ABLE to do vs what I can do now.

Anonymous said...

here's a thought- why doesn't anyone take all the staff who are trained to do case work and use them (at least partially) to do casework? we have we have supervisors, lead workers, policy specialists, special projects workers, hospital -based workers who belong halftime to the state, kidsmed center workers. the agency needs to think more creatively.

Anonymous said...

Something needs to be done! I am 2 months in the process and it is ridiculous. The workers at the office are rude and extremely uncooperative. I have left several messages on supervisors' voicemails and even they don't return phone calls. They must have groceries in their fridge! I call everyday and they have started to hang up on me. They all need to be fired and have to apply for foodstamps and go through the process themselves. I think that would be punishment enough!!

Marcy said...

Why don't you just spend the time you call every day to look for a job? Unless you're disabled, it's not our responsibility as tax payers to feed you and you have NO idea what it's like to work 7 days a week in a system that WE didn't have any say so about any more than YOU did.....SAVERR is old and DOS based?? Big deal!!! At least it worked. Tiers??? Someone needs to be fired, but it's not the caseworkers who ...oh yeah, we have food in our fridge!!!! Rotten food...we don't have TIME to cook or the energy either after the time we put in trying to catch up in a system that is killing us faster than we can work it and it will NOT get any better, so get over it and change your life so you don't HAVE to depend on your MONTHLY ENTITLEMENT!!! Oh. and if you're capable of work and change your princess attitude, wait a little bit and you can have current caseworkers jobs soon. We'll all be dead from strokes and heart attacks before this system is fixed!!! Want my job? Please, take it!

Marcy said...

Those call centers CAN'T do most of the work. They can sure screw up stuff though. I read in "comments" in a case where someone (client) has called again and again and again, with NO contact made to HHSC so that anyone will KNOW someone needs help. They're people off the street who are telling people what they're eligible for or NOT, when they are not caseworkes and haven't been trained in policy to know HOW to handle much of anything! And "anonymous" said to take the part time workers??? There are no part time workers....the people you are talking about who are outstationed work just as many hours (more) than those in offices. What you have misunderstood from SOMEONE is that 1/2 of an outstationed worker's BASE salary is reimbursed to the state by the hospital or clinic, etc. so that they can have their own caseworker....and the STATE has to justify if that entity has enough of a caseload to merit putting someone there before it can even happen.

Anonymous said...

TIERs is the problem and it always has been. It still is slow and clunky. It is a poor design and prone to glitches. Saverr workers are overburdened and forced to handle changes for the TIERs call center...with the few TIERs trained people we have.
The TIERs call center in San Antonio is routing all calls back to the Region Change Center...WHY?
It is to make it look like TIERs is working, unforuntely it proves it is not working!
They have installed retired employees in director positions to run interference and to intimidate anyone who thinks the system is crap!This I have experience myself.
I have talked to individuals who are very high up who say the same thing, but are not allowed to express their opinions aobut this final thing, A lot of this stinks of political kick backs and inside deals...which point to one person, Perry and his presidential aspirations. Don't get wrong, I despise democrats, especially those blindly following the Obama Administration.