A Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled Thursday that the state has failed to deliver food stamps and medical benefits in a timely manner to thousands of Marylanders, and he ordered a corrective action plan to be filed by late January.
Judge Barry Williams ruled that the Department of Human Resources needs to fully comply by the end of 2010 with a law that requires that emergency and medical benefits be received by applicants within 30 days. The case was brought by a Baltimore County woman who sued the state after she applied for food stamps in February but did not receive the services until April, more than 60 days after the request.
Miracyle Thompson, a mother of three, and her husband were in court as the judge read his decision, which prompted emotional reactions from advocates who took the case on her behalf. The DHR will also have to send monthly progress reports to several advocacy organizations, including the Public Justice Center, the Homeless Persons Representation Project, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, and Kirkland and Ellis, a private firm.
Thompson and Earline Augustus-El, who joined the suit months later, did not seek a financial settlement. Thompson said she sued to become a "steppingstone for a lot of people who didn't have a voice. I was tired of suffering. And I know that if I were suffering, there were other people doing worse than I was."
Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald said the department was working on a plan to raise its 83.5 percent compliance rate in medical benefits and food stamps, which places Maryland in the middle of national rankings. Donald said the time frame for the judge's order makes full compliance impossible.
The state was seeking 18 months to come into full compliance, at which time it says an upgrade in the department's computer system would make processing applications considerably easier.
"We have a plan, and we'll flesh it out," Donald said. "But to come into full compliance in 12 months will be a major challenge. You can term it impossible."
DHR officials testified during the four-day trial that high employee turnover and excessive caseloads caused by the economic downturn helped lead to the backlog. At the time Thompson applied, medical assistance for more than 7,100 individuals and families was overdue, and more than 4,100 food stamp requests were delayed past 30 days.
The department has improved since the spring, cutting the backlog in half in Baltimore County, according to Donald. She said that online upgrades, allowing telephone applications and other measures have helped shave the number of applicants.
But an independent economist testified during the trial that more than 3,600 applications for food stamps remained pending as of September.
Williams said he understands the causes of the backlog but added that "the issue is not whether it is easy to do but whether it is the requirement of the law." As of Thursday, Williams had not defined whether full compliance meant 100 percent of all cases, instead seeking written proposals from both sides before rendering a figure.
Advocates agree that the DHR will have difficulty processing the cases but said the department has known of the backlog for years and failed to address the issue.
"If they hadn't been ignoring the problem in favor of other priorities, I might be more concerned," Debra Gardner of the Public Justice Center said. "But they need to make up some ground. Thousands go hungry and without medical care. Every month it takes them, it's continuing harm."
Thompson's two oldest boys suffer from sickle-cell anemia and asthma, and became sick after not receiving their medications on time, according to testimony. The Owings Mills woman told the court that not having food stamps forced her to go hungry some nights so her children could eat.
Augustus-El told the court that she has high blood pressure and suffers from depression and diabetes. She said her depression became uncontrollable when she did not receive her medication and that she was unable to care for her children.
Both of the plaintiffs eventually received the services.