Monday, September 28, 2009

Backlog, processing errors bedevil food stamp program

Corrie MacLaggan
Austin American-Statesman

Tens of thousands of Texas families are waiting as long as several months for food stamps as a surge in applications lands on an already strained system.

And when state workers do process the applications, they often do it wrong. One out of every six food stamp applications is incorrectly processed by state workers, according to state data. In some cases, that means eligible families are being denied benefits.

That error rate has skyrocketed since 2004, rising from 2.8 percent to 21.4 percent last year. For the first half of this year, the error rate fell to 17.4 percent.

This comes as Texas is struggling with a food stamp application backlog, failing to process more than a third of applications within the 30 days required by the federal government.

At the end of last month, 38,000 new applicants were still waiting for approval even though the federal deadline had passed, state officials said. Families sometimes wait three months for benefits, officials said.

It's also a problem for longtime recipients who must renew, such as Bexar County resident Mary Bidwell. After years of receiving food stamps, Bidwell was surprised when she didn't receive benefits in August, she said.

"It made me so mad, I couldn't go to sleep," said Bidwell, 67, a retiree who said she can't afford to buy fresh fruits and vegetables without food stamps. "I thought, 'Well, hey, here comes the beans and tortillas again.' "

Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said, "Right now, our focus is on reducing the backlog, but then we also know we have to tackle these error rate issues."

She attributed the errors to the lack of experienced staff - more than half of state enrollment workers, as of June, had less than two years' experience, compared with 8.4 percent in 2004 - and the pressure of an increased workload.

There are about 2.8 million Texans enrolled in the food stamps program, an increase of about 11 percent since last year. Benefits offices across Texas are struggling to answer and return calls about food stamps and other programs because of what Goodman said is "a combination of volume and really old phone lines."

The commission has asked Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislative Budget Board for permission to hire about 650 more workers.

"We've received their request, and our budget staff is analyzing it," said Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger. Goodman said that to cut down on errors, the state tried giving workers more time to process cases, but that wasn't practical because of the backlog. To address the timeliness problem, she said, the agency is making changes such as assigning senior employees who normally review others' work to process emergency food stamp cases.

In July, the commission was sued in U.S. District Court over the timeliness issue by the Texas Legal Services Center and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.

The timeliness problem started several years ago when the agency lost workers in advance of an outsourcing effort. Goodman said the problem was complicated by a surge of applications following Hurricane Ike last year and another surge this year as the economy soured.
"We've been hit by a number of various kinds of storms, some literal, some figurative," Goodman said. Some advocates for low-income Texans say the food stamp program - now officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - is in a crisis that could have been avoided. Celia Hagert of the Center for Public Policy Priorities said the program is supposed to be readily available during an economic downturn. A family of four earning up to $2,915 a month might qualify for food stamps, Goodman said.

"The state has simply failed to administer it in a way that gets help to people who need it, and that was an entirely preventable situation," Hagert said.

She said the situation could have been avoided by keeping the agency adequately staffed. State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, said Perry and the budget board should immediately approve the request, and he suggested that the state extend the food stamp enrollment period from six months to a year, which would not require legislative approval.

That's one of several possibilities that the commission is discussing with federal officials, Goodman said. "As stewards of taxpayer dollars," Naishtat said, "we need to make sure we're not spending taxpayers' money on a system that either does not or cannot perform as it should."
The backlog is especially large in the Dallas and Houston areas, where less than half the applications were processed on time in August. The Austin area did better - 87.8 percent of applications were processed on time that month - but didn't meet the federal standard of 95 percent.

Bidwell, who said her benefits dropped from $111 a month to $0 in August, e-mailed everyone she could think of - from the office of the San Antonio mayor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees food stamps. One of her e-mails ended: "HELP!!!!!"

A few days later, she said, her benefits were reinstated. She said she's relieved but worried about others who depend on food stamps.

"Worst comes to worst, I could go eat at my daughter's. I don't want to, but I probably could," she said. "Probably a lot of people are in worse shape than I am."

No comments: