Monday, September 28, 2009

Feds: Texas must speed up food stamp processing

Corrie MacLaggan
Austin American-Statesman

Texas must process food stamp applications more quickly or risk losing federal funds, U.S. officials warned this week. This comes the same week as the state's Legislative Budget Board denied a request from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to hire about 650 state workers to help address application backlogs and processing errors.

"The current status of (food stamp) administration in Texas is unacceptable and actions must be taken immediately," says a letter to Executive Commissioner Tom Suehs from the U.S.
Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees the food stamp program.
The letter from William Ludwig, a food stamp regional administrator, says that the state is out of compliance with federal law. The federal government requires applications to be processed within 30 days, but the state is failing to process more than a third of applications by the deadline, according to state data. At the end of last month, 38,000 new applicants were waiting for approval even though the deadline had passed, state officials have said.

Celia Hagert of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which is an advocate for low- and middle-income Texans, called the federal letter "a warning sterner than we've ever seen before."
The letter says that commission officials must produce a corrective action plan within 60 days, and commission spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said the agency will work swiftly to do so.
"We do know that Texans do need and deserve better service now," Goodman said. About 2.8 million Texans are in the food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That's an increase of 11 percent compared with last year, and the economy-related surge comes as the agency is struggling with backlogs and errors. One in every six food stamp applications is incorrectly processed by state workers, according to state data. In some cases, that means eligible families are denied benefits.

"How disgusting that we find ourselves in this situation," said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. "This pressure from the federal government should serve to motivate the state and the new commissioner to correct things."

Former Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins, who retired Aug. 31, told Gov. Rick Perry and the budget board in an Aug. 13 letter that hiring additional workers would reduce caseloads. That "would improve timeliness of case processing, and should improve quality and accuracy," Hawkins wrote. There are now about 7,700 enrollment workers and more than 300 vacancies, Goodman said.

Even if the requested workers were added and a similar number were hired in 2011, the state would have about 1,000 fewer enrollment workers than it did a decade ago, when caseloads were significantly lower, Hagert said.

Under a provision in the state budget, this week was the deadline for the budget board or the governor to answer Hawkins' request; if they had done nothing, the request would have been automatically approved.

In an e-mail Thursday, budget board senior analyst Melitta Berger wrote to commission officials: "This notice is to inform you that (the staffing request) is disapproved. We will continue to work with you to further understand the agency's needs and to address them in a timely manner."

The 10-member Legislative Budget Board is made up of the lieutenant governor, House speaker and members of the House and Senate.

Rich Parsons, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, said that the decision to deny the request was made by board staff members rather than elected officials and that Dewhurst's office is working with the commission on a plan for the food stamp enrollment system.

Parsons said that simply approving the new workers would not necessarily address the problems and that denying the request now will allow officials to come up with a plan.

Zaffirini, a budget board member, said she supports the commission's request for more staff and wishes that she had been able to weigh in on it.

Goodman called the e-mail "more of a clock-stopping move" than a denial. The request "could still be approved," Goodman said. "We're still working with (the budget board) and other leaders to make sure they have the information they need to fully analyze our request for more staff."

But Hagert called the e-mail "stunning" and said that not hiring now is unfair to families waiting for food stamps. "We have hundreds of thousands of Texans needing help affording food and caring for their families," said Hagert, a senior policy analyst at the center.

Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Perry, declined to say whether the governor thinks the staffing request should be approved.

"This is an important issue that still needs to be addressed, and we'll continue to work with the leadership and the (budget board) on this," Cesinger said.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

With all those large numbers of recipients of fs if would be interesting to see the actual number of client per actual interviewing advisor. I know that we are working ot and now have to take on additional cases for cold calling from other offices. The top people keep using this mandatory Saturday work at least two days but with each new item they have tacked on they have taken all the Saturdays and we still can't keep up.