Md. asks to dismiss welfare suit after improved performance

Report shows processing improved after lawsuit

December 22, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

A year after a judge ordered the state to process applications for food stamps and medical benefits faster, the Maryland Department of Human Resources says it is doing a much better job.

In a November report filed this week in Baltimore Circuit Court, the department says it processed more than 97 percent of welfare claims within the federally required 30-day window. Just 81 percent of claims were processed that quickly in January.

"It's nothing short of an unbelievable success," said Brian Wilbon, the department's interim secretary. "We've gone from noncompliance to better than compliance in 11 months."

State human resources workers handled more than 54,000 claims for benefits last month. Wilbon said the caseload has increased 42 percent in the past three years and "shows no signs of letting up."

The processing improvements come after policy changes, technology enhancements and the redoubled efforts of the 1,800 workers who handle claims, Wilbon said. Those state employees have worked nights, weekends and on what were supposed to be unpaid days off to ensure quicker processing, he said. The department reduced other expenses to pay overtime to the processors, he said.

The state's handling of welfare claims first came under scrutiny in April 2009 when Miracyle Thompson, a homeless Baltimore County mother of two little boys with sickle cell disease, sued after her application for assistance was delayed time and again — well beyond the 30-day window.

Later, another woman, Earline Augustus-El, and advocacy organizations joined the lawsuit. It was filed in Baltimore, where the state Department of Human Resources is headquartered. Both women in the suit eventually received benefits.

Last December, Circuit Judge Barry Williams sided with the plaintiffs, ordering the state to follow a corrective action plan that called for at least 96 percent of claims to be processed within 30 days.

The judge imposed a year-end deadline to reach that level of compliance; state officials say the November report shows they have accomplished that. Accompanying the report filed in court this week is a motion to end the case.

Carolyn Johnson of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, one of many attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said the legal team is reviewing the motion and will file a response by the end of January.

The plaintiffs' lawyers have been receiving monthly updates from the department, and based on those, Johnson said, "We're very pleased with the progress they've made."

"The focus now is on the sustainability of that progress," she added.

One challenge ahead could be changing leadership. Wilbon, a former deputy human resources secretary, took over in July when Secretary Brenda Donald left to join the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Wilbon announced last week that he will leave the state agency next month to become chief operating officer of the Montgomery County Department of Human Services.

Gov. Martin O'Malley is conducting a national search for a secretary of human resources, but no announcement has been made. Other key positions are changing, too, including the executive director of the Family Investment Administration, the division responsible for food stamps and medical benefits.

"Changes in high-level management is always a challenge," Johnson said. "We hope whoever comes next will continue going down the same path of progress."

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