State solving food stamp backlog but ‘not out of woods’

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State solving food stamp backlog but ‘not out of woods’

AJC COVERAGE

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been investigating problems at the Georgia food stamp program since last fall. Federal officials cracked down on the troubled system in March, leaving the state scrambling to solve problems or face up to a $76 million loss in federal funds. On Friday, the state’s top food stamp official said great progress has been made, but there’s a long way to go.

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Georgia’s top food stamp official said the state has made great progress toward eliminating a huge backlog of food stamp applications, but must do more to eliminate the threatened loss of up to $76 million in federal funding.

State Human Services Commissioner Keith Horton said Friday that his agency’s full-court press in recent months — including an intense overtime program and the hiring of a few hundred extra workers — has reduced the backlog of cases from about 65,000 in late February to about 5,500.

“We’ve made great strides over the past month,” Horton said during a news conference, “but we are not out of the woods yet.”

Federal officials have said Georgia must fully resolve the backlog of food stamp cases that are overdue for action by May 1. But Georgia must do more than just bring down its numbers. The state must convince federal officials that it is making systemic changes that will fix a system plagued by understaffing, antiquated technology and a call-in center that cannot handle all the calls that come in.

If the state fails at that, millions in federal funding could be withdrawn as early as May. The financial penalty would apply only to money used to administer the state system, not the benefits people receive.

Applicants calling for help have been placed on hold for hours or their calls simply went unanswered. Many lost their benefits because they must reapply every six months but couldn’t get through.

“It’s going to take us some time to be where we need to be,” Horton said.

To that end, the state plans to replace the system’s call-in center by the end of the year, and revamp its food stamp eligibility system by 2015.

The federal government pays for people’s food stamps, but it splits the cost of running the program with the state. In early March, federal officials cracked down on Georgia’s troubled system, demanding that backlogged cases be cleared and that the state craft long-term solutions.

The state faces a rare threat. The federal government has not withdrawn administrative funds from a state food stamp program in at least 10 years, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department, which oversees the program.

State officials say they are confident the state is making enough improvements in the system that it will satisfy the May 1 deadline.

“We’re very confident in the strategies in place,” Horton said.

Georgia’s food stamp debacle has assumed a higher public profile in recent days. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a package of stories Sunday and Monday. On Thursday, Gov. Nathan Deal said the state will seek a federal waiver that would speed the approval of 2,673 food stamp applications from some of the neediest Georgians.

During Friday’s news conference, Horton said the waiver would help the agency alleviate the backlog and provide help to people who need immediate relief.

The waiver would eliminate the need for people to undergo an initial interview and verify their identity, he said. Within two weeks of providing benefits, the agency would follow up with a complete review of a person’s eligibility.

Horton made his case for the waiver in a letter Thursday to Robin Bailey, the regional administrator for the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service.

“Daily reports on the progress made on these specific applications will be provided to your staff,” Horton wrote.

Also during the news conference, Horton acknowledged that Georgia narrowly missed a March 31 deadline to clear thousands of backlogged food stamp cases. Horton said Georgia had 337 cases remaining when the deadline arrived to clear 30,000 high-priority cases.

“We did not make the benchmark,” Horton said. “We hit 99 percent of it.”

Federal officials have declined to comment on the progress made by the state, saying they are finalizing a review of the state’s performance on several March 31 benchmarks. The federal agency said it is awaiting the state’s formal waiver request. Even if the waiver is rejected, state officials say they will still satisfy the May deadline.

Federal officials said Friday in a statement that they “remain committed to working with the state” to ensure eligible people have access to food stamps in a timely manner.

Food stamp experts say federal officials will be looking deeper than just numbers.

Employees working overtime will get burnt out and the temporary workers will be gone, said Patrick Waldron, an Atlanta resident and former policy chief for the Food and Nutrition Service. “They have to make a good faith effort to show they are making permanent changes, and not just doing things to get the (federal agency) off their back.”

Georgetown professor David Super, who has studied Georgia’s system for years, said the feds will examine the quality of the work done on applications.

“Are they actually processing cases or are they deleting or granting cases without review?” he said.

He believes the federal officials will grant the waiver request, so long as they see it as part of a credible process to correct the interlocking problems in the system.

“Applicants are still having a terrible time getting through on the phone. People are still getting dropped from the program,” Super said. “It’s still in pretty bad shape.”

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