State further behind handling food stamps, medical benefits

Backlog slows effort to meet court order to keep up with requests

March 15, 2010|By Brent Jones | brent.jones@baltsun.com

Three months after a judge ordered the state to speed up delivery of food stamps and medical benefits to low-income Maryland residents, the problem has worsened, court filings show.

At the end of January, the state's Department of Human Resources was operating at an 81 percent compliance rate processing those requests, down 2.5 percentage points from the previous month, according to papers filed in Baltimore Circuit Court.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say the decline shows that the state - which faces a year-end deadline to improve services - continues to struggle. "We're still seeing people with clear, long delays in their application come into our office," said Carolyn Johnson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs - Baltimore County residents Miracyle Thompson and Earline Augustus-El and three advocacy organizations.

Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald attributes the drop to the department's handling thousands of backlogged applications statewide at the end of last year. Unapproved applications are only one part of the backlog - there were a number of paper applications that had not been entered into the system. Donald listed Baltimore County as a region with a high number of overdue requests not addressed by DHR workers; 7,500 applications were recently reviewed, and the department has since cleared about 5,500.

Thompson sued the state last year after having to wait more than two months for food stamps and medical services for her children. Her case was joined by Augustus-El, the Public Justice Center, the Homeless Persons Representation Project and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.

In December, Judge Barry Williams ruled that the state needs to be in full compliance with the law by the end of 2010. At the time, Donald said that was "impossible" and asked for an additional six months, but her request was denied.

Donald said in a recent interview she expects to have a better gauge on the state's progress toward the court order within the next couple of months. In the past three months, the state's hired dozens of temporary clerical workers and paid overtime to full-time staff to shave down the number of overdue applications. Also, "we're tracking compliance with current applications, and we're at a much higher rate," she said.

By 2011, the department plans to have an upgraded computer system that will speed up the application process, Donald said.

In his December ruling, Williams also ordered the state to submit a corrective action plan to the plaintiffs, which the department did at the end of January. But the proposal was soundly rejected by the coalition last week in a written response submitted to the court. Calling it a "disappointment," the plaintiffs wrote that they saw "no evidence that the proposed [corrective action plan] constitutes a comprehensive and verifiable plan that will ensure defendant achieves full compliance."

Johnson said some of DHR's initiatives, such as an enhanced Web-based application system, will not take effect until next year, well after the court-mandated deadline. The plaintiffs added that other proposals, including increased training for workers and an interactive voice response system to handle calls, lack hard deadlines for results.

Another new proposal, an expedited reactivation process for customers with closed cases, is set to begin in July, but the plaintiffs argue that the implementation will not be done in time to significantly affect the compliance rate for this year.

Donald said the department will submit a written reply to the plaintiff's response in coming days.

"We wanted to present a comprehensive reform plan," she said. "I've been very clear, this is not just about doing some short-term quick fixes. This is about a comprehensive overhaul on the way we process applications. We wanted to show we're looking at this in a long-term view. The technologies will go beyond the timeline set in December."

The state has teetered between an 85 percent and 88 percent compliance rate for much of the past decade, but that was before DHR had to deal with the large backlog last year. Most states aim for a compliance rate of at least 90 percent. Only two states, Montana and Massachusetts, are at 96 percent or better.

Within the past two years, DHR officials say, they have implemented programs designed to streamline the food stamp system, including allowing interviews over the telephone and training new employees faster. But the department was unequipped to handle the flood of applicants after the economy declined, advocates say. Some advocates have also questioned how often DHR is using phone applications, which are left to the discretion of each jurisdiction, rather than face-to-face interviews.

About 530,000 Marylanders receive food stamps, a 32 percent increase since 2008.

In April 2009, Thompson sued the state when her two oldest boys, who have sickle-cell anemia and asthma, became sick after not receiving their medications on time.

Augustus-El later joined the suit and testified in 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 she was unable to care for her children.

The coalition of advocates took up the case last summer and represented the women in court.

"We want to remain optimistic because we want this problem to be solved," Johnson said. "But we were disappointed in what we saw in that plan, and that their performance has actually gotten worse since the trial. The other concern, from my sense, was the lack of urgency to get this done."

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