Jo Ann de la Moriniere, 73, who says she has had a lot of trouble with her food stamps, prepares lunch at her home in Ball Ground. Georgia’s problem-wracked food stamp system continues to block people from getting the assistance. Much of the problem focuses on the flawed call-in center, which people use to apply and ask questions and undergo interviews. In January, nearly half of the callers could not get through. Wait times stretch over hours. The agency has a 40,000 case backlog.
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Food stamp woes put $76 million at risk

Georgia is spending millions of dollars to fix its broken food stamp system, as federal officials threaten to cut up to $76 million in administrative funding.

The federal crackdown, which could result in a loss of funds May 1, comes in response to months of escalating problems. A combination of understaffing, antiquated technology and a call-in center that can’t handle the call volume has caused thousands of Georgians to lose their food stamp benefits or be blocked from applying.

Needy people calling for help have been placed on hold for hours. Thousands of calls go unanswered. Many people lose their benefits because they must reapply every six months, but they can’t get through.

After several warnings to the state, federal officials brought down the hammer this month, demanding systemwide improvements — or else.

The federal government pays for food stamps, but Georgia’s system is managed by the state Division of Family and Children Services. The federal government and the state split the management costs.

Unless significant change occurs, the feds say they will cut some or all of their $76 million share as early as May 1.

The state has created “continued and deeply concerning barriers to program access,” Robin Bailey Jr., the regional administrator of the federal Food and Nutrition Service, wrote in a March 5 letter to the head the agency that oversees DFCS.

Earlier this month, the state had a backlog of 30,000 cases that were overdue for action.

“These delays are completely unacceptable and represent a serious failure” on the part of the state, Bailey wrote. Blasting the state’s prior reform plans as inadequate, he demanded a new blueprint for action and laid out deadlines for results.

State Human Services Commissioner Keith Horton, responding in a March 19 letter to Bailey, acknowledged the “current state of emergency” that has resulted in “unacceptable and frustrating service for thousands of Georgians seeking access to our programs.”

At the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence in DeKalb County, safe house director Barbara Gibson said at least a dozen women have been unable to get through on the phone for food stamps.

“They feel powerless,” Gibson said. “It’s just one more thing they have to deal with, trying to establish food and safety for their families. It’s not something they should worry about.”

In the past month, DFCS has accelerated its reforms. The state does not have to fix all the problems by May 1, but it must alleviate the backlog of overdue cases.

Having spent a total of $500,000 in employee overtime from December through February, the agency budgeted $470,000 in overtime each week in March. It’s spending $250,000 on a consultant, Cambria Solutions, to help revamp the system. The agency has also hired about 500 staff, many of them temp workers, to help with the phones and process applications.

State officials say they will clear the backlog by May 1, but concerns extend beyond overdue cases. Some advocates worry that the state will do only the bare minimum to avoid federal penalties.

“That doesn’t mean (Gov. Nathan Deal) is going to invest in the system long term,” said Bryan Long, executive director of the progressive advocacy group Better Georgia. “I believe this administration wants to bring that number (of food stamp recipients) down as low as possible, by any means possible.”

DFCS officials say they’re not just applying Band-Aids.

“As we eliminate our previous backlog, we are beginning to focus on strategies that will keep other families from experiencing delays in eligibility determinations, now and in the future,” Horton said.

As the state’s systems failed, Georgia saw one of the steepest declines in food stamp usage in the country. About 1.7 million Georgians receive food stamps, nearly one in five residents. The number of people receiving benefits decreased by almost 245,000 from November, 2012, to January, 2014.

The disarray has also inflated the amount of food stamp money issued in error, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars through overpayments.

Many of the problems center on the agency’s call-in center, which was rolled out across the state last year. It has proved a bust and must be scrapped and replaced, officials say. Officials did not offer cost estimates for a new system, but said they hope to implement a new call center by the end of the year.

The current center is essentially a refurbished “antiquated, older” system, said Ron Scroggy, who was the DFCS director when the system was introduced last year. “We did it with a minimal investment,” said Scroggy, who has since moved on to head the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children.

The system, which also handles calls regarding programs such as Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, can only handle 900 calls at any one time, but the numbers have far exceeded that since the recession. Pressure on the center increased when DFCS curtailed face-to-face interviews at its county offices, requiring people to go through the call center.

In November, 68 percent of the 510,110 calls to the center went unanswered. People were left on hold for as long as 2 hours and 26 minutes, according to agency data.

February saw some improvement: 42 percent of calls were not answered.

Jo Ann de la Moriniere was one of those callers.When the 73-year-old Ball Ground woman reapplied for food stamps in October, she ran into several of the system’s problems. At the Cherokee County DFCS office, she had to wait two hours before a worker would see her, only to be directed to the call-in center.

During her phone interview, she was assured her benefits would remain at $154 a month, she said. But when she received her money in November, her benefits had been reduced to just $15 a month.

“I was shocked,” she said.

She tried to call DFCS, but found herself placed on hold for as much as an hour. Each time she tried — about once a week through February — she was placed on hold. Sometimes the line just went dead. Other times she got a recording to leave her number but nobody called back. By March, she gave up.

Her heart problems and diabetes had already eaten up her savings, so lately she’s been visiting food banks.

“I don’t eat as well as I’d like to, considering my diabetes,” she said.

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