Modernization efforts put food stamps on hold

Workers at the Benefit Services Center in Waterbury

Six months ago, Gov. Jim Douglas hailed a new computerized “central intake system” for Vermonters seeking government benefits as “the best possible way to reach Vermonters.”

The call center, complete with digital document processing, was meant to make it easier for Vermonters who are down on their luck to apply for “economic benefits” — food stamps, government housing assistance or medical care. In the new system, all they had to do was call a 1-800 number or go online to complete an application.

At an elaborate press conference, in which reporters were given a full tour of the newly renovated Benefit Service Center in the state offices complex in Waterbury, Douglas touted the new system as an example of “the kind of transformative change that can really make a difference. It’s imperative to demonstrate to the Legislature how effective this kind of change can be.” Though the new system was paid for through a federal grant, the center was held up as a model for the Challenges for Change government restructuring plan later enacted by lawmakers.

Read the “Douglas touts centralized intake system for state’s poorest residents,” plus VIDEO

That was in March. The system, which was supposed to be fully operational in June, still isn’t working the way it’s supposed to. The online application form wasn’t available until Oct. 4. Wait times for the 1-800 number average 5 minutes, but in some cases can take as long as 20 minutes, according to Steve Dale, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families.

The result? Since July a backlog of applications has begun to build.

Vermonters have had to make repeated calls to the center in order to file an application or find out whether their information has been processed. (The new “paperless” system doesn’t have a notification system letting applicants know where their virtual paperwork is in the process.)

Dale said in an interview that 40 percent of Vermonters who have applied had seen a delay in food stamps eligibility determination of more than 30 days. He said the total number of applicants affected by the glitches in the new system numbered in the “hundreds.”

Under federal government guidelines, the maximum wait time for application processing is set at 30 days.

On Friday, the Washington County Hunger Council and the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger sent out a press release stating that “thousands” of Vermonters have seen delays of two to four weeks for their applications to the 3SquaresVT program. They held a meeting with Dale in Montpelier to tell him that the new system is preventing families from gaining access to benefits they need – including food stamps.

“It’s been going on for months and it doesn’t seem to be getting better,” Smith-Dieng said. “As an advocate, I want it to be better — now.”

There were about 5,000 applicants for 3SquaresVT in September, according to Angela Smith-Dieng, a policy specialist for the Vermont Campaign.

At a rate of 40 percent, roughly 2,000 Vermont households had to wait more than a month to find out if they were eligible to receive food stamps in September, and about 15 percent, or between 500 and 750 Vermonters, based on the average number of applications in a given month — 4,000 – have had to wait as long as two months.

Smith-Dieng described the situation as a “crisis.” She said the Hunger Council has collected the stories of people who have been directly affected by the delays. A family of four applied for food stamps in April when the father lost his job and they didn’t get a phone interview with the center until June, according to Smith-Dieng. They received benefits at the end of July.

Another Vermont family waited two months for a phone interview, only to be told they needed to turn in more paperwork, Smith-Dieng said. A refugee who spoke English as a third language, she said, couldn’t get through the automated phone system because of his accent.

“It’s been going on for months and it doesn’t seem to be getting better,” Smith-Dieng said. “As an advocate, I want it to be better — now.”

The Economic Services Division has cut back on staffing at regional offices, and no longer provides direct services to Vermonters who need to apply for benefits. Instead, the state relies on community action councils, regional nonprofit groups, to help Vermonters negotiate the new system.

In a press release, the hunger groups said community agencies “have tried to help without any additional funding but are frustrated by a system that decreases the number of clients they can serve.”

Beth Stern, executive director of the Central Vermont Council on Aging, said in a statement: “When my case managers spend hours trying to get one client, 3SquaresVT, who has been closed out erroneously, it affects their abilities to work with other clients who may be experiencing health issues, abuse, family problems and caregiver issues. It feels like the state’s lack of planning and foresight has negatively affected both our staff and our clients.”

Dale said the department works closely with nonprofit agencies, and he was surprised that the hunger groups had sent out a press release criticizing the center publicly.

Eighty-five percent to 88 percent of applications are processed within 45 days.

He said 85 percent to 88 percent of applications are processed within 45 days. “There is a problem, but we need to keep it in perspective,” Dale said.

Dale said the total demand for 3SquaresVT has risen by 63 percent over the last three years. The dramatic increase in recipients (one in eight Vermonters uses food stamps) is due in part to the recession and in part to the department’s concerted efforts to provide benefits to a larger group of people.

In 2009, the state changed the eligibility rules so that more people at slightly higher income levels could receive benefits. Any household that is within 185 percent of the national poverty level qualifies for 3SquaresVT now; the cutoff used to be 130 percent, according to Renee Richardson, nutrition program chief for the Department of Children and Families.

Last month, Vermont won a bonus award of $375,889 from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for its expansion of 3SquaresVT in 2009.

At the time, Douglas said in a statement: “Once again, Vermont is recognized as a leader among states in protecting and serving the most vulnerable in our communities. This award recognizes our strong efforts to reach out to Vermonters in need to ensure they have access to critical benefits, especially in these challenging economic times.”

The number of Vermont households receiving benefits as a result of the new rules and the recession went up from 28,000 participating households to 43,000, Richardson said in September.

“We really brought more people through our doors, and we did this intentionally,” Richardson said.

Meanwhile, the department held its staffing levels “steady,” according to Dale, in spite of an onslaught of new beneficiaries. The center is part of “an overall effort to make government as efficient as it can be,” Dale said. Under the modernized system there will be less handling of paper, less driving to district offices and more time for “consumers” and for employees to process applications, he said.

More than 650 Vermonters applied for benefits using a new Web-based form that went up at the beginning of the month, Dale said. Though he doesn’t expect older Vermonters to feel comfortable with the online technology, he said younger people seem to like it. The department has received positive
feedback in a survey of applicants on the site, he said.

At this point, Dale said he doesn’t know when the biggest component of the new system – a digital call-routing program — will be ready for show time. The department is taking the situation “day by day” he said. “Very soon it will be done, and it will have us fully in this new environment where we can much better manage huge increases in workload,” Dale said.

The software sends applications to workers who have the most available time in any given office around the state so that the workload is evened out across the department’s workforce.

“That piece has been stalled,” Dale said. “It’s been technically challenging.”

Weeks go by and families don’t know whether they are going to get access to the food they need, Smith-Dieng said.

Dale said wait times of 20 minutes are unacceptable – he said no one should have to stay on the phone longer than 5 minutes. In the meantime, the department has added temporary workers to its staff and reassigned employees to handle the barrage of applications. He said at this point the number of delayed applications has not continued to rise, in spite of the problems.

Smith-Dieng said she understands the department has had problems, but she said: “Ultimately, we all suffer when these programs aren’t working well for people. It ripples through our families and communities. We (hunger advocates) feel it needs to be said loud and clear that it’s not acceptable, and we want to hold DCF accountable to (get the system to) work the way it’s intended to.”

Weeks go by and families don’t know whether they are going to get access to the food they need, she said. Vermonters come to the community action councils, she said, and they say they’ve applied for food stamps but haven’t heard anything.

“That sort of story is what we hear all the time,” Smith-Dieng said. “That’s not good customer service. The point of the hunger council meeting was to bring that message to the commissioner.”

Anne Galloway

Comments

  1. “There is a problem, but we need to keep it in perspective,” Dale said.

    It is difficult to keep things in perspective Mr Dale when a system that has been promoted as being fast and efficient has left many in the “dark.” regarding their benefits..

    The other snafu that AHS and DVHA have kept quiet is ….On October 1st all recipients of Medicaid, VHAP, and DR Dynasaur were to recieve new Health insurance cards. All of the REACH UP CHILD ONLY recipients ( 4000+ children ) medical cards were mailed to AHS CENTRAL OFFICE instead of to the recipients!!! those 4000 children are still waiting for replacement cards and in many cases are being refused medical services unless they pay out of pocket.

    THE CHALLENGE FOR CHANGE IS>>>>GET IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME!!

  2. Does this situation have anything to do with “One Stop Shopping” for services? I remember the web-based One Stop Shopping system was supposed to be essential for meeting this year’s Challenges. This article seems to be talking about the One Stop Shopping system, but it is not mentioned by that name. Maybe One Stop Shopping is a different system.

  3. Doug Gibson :

    Please do not blame the frontline employees for any of this mess. They feel as badly about the cluster it’s become as anyone. All they can do is watch while the many chiefs tell the fewer and fewer frontline employees what to do–and then instruct them to try and mop up the resulting mess. Someone should ask how much is being spent right now by DCF on temps, overtime and more and more long distance phone calls. All of these measures add up to additional money being spent that was supposed to be saved by all this moderanization. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to the employees watching it play out. Is this an example of what lies ahead for other agencies/depts held to the Challenges for Change mandate? Hope not.

  4. Dave Bellini :

    Laying off permanent employees and reducing the size of government sounds good in campaign speeches. The actual result has been that many state Departments can no longer fulfill their stated mission. Thus, the Administration has to hire untrained temporary employees and contractors to do the work. Ironically the very Agency that brings basic services to Vermonters has replaced employees who have health insurance with temporary workers who do not receive benefits like health insurance. Some temporary employees have remained on the job for years. Bottom Line: More and more temporary employees with no health insurance replacing permanent employees who had health insurance. suods cemears

  5. Michelle Longley :

    We are a family that have been waiting for this system to be corrected. I lost my job and applied for benefits back in early August. We have always had Medicad/Dr. Dinosaur so when we were renewing it we decided to try for some additional benefits, food and fuel assistance. If it wasn’t for me calling and badgering them every week for our health insurance we would probably still be waiting for a phone interview (the first step once the application is received) The whole waiting game wouldn’t be so bad if we hadn’t lost our Medical Insurance (with 5 kids in the house); because we applied for more things, now everything has to be processed together….I tried numerous times since my phone interview to find out why the applications still haven’t gone through but all I have access to is a poorly managed 800 #….yesterday I called 3 times and the shortest wait time the machine told me was 73 minutes at 1:30 in the afternoon!!! So…my question and main concern is…will our Doctor and Hospital bills in the mean time eventually be covered or am I stuck with bills I can’t afford. I’m definatley dissapointed in the whole process!! Hope it changes soon.

  6. walter carpenter :

    “I’m definatley dissapointed in the whole process!! Hope it changes soon.”

    I do not blame you. It is precisely as Douglas and company wanted it to happen. They knew precisely what they were doing in this. The point was to make it so difficult that you would just give up and not bother to seek the benefits and, thus, they would be able to save the money.

    • Hi Walter,

      I want to agree with your statement, and it probably is true or you would not have said it, but I cannot find statements by Governor Douglas or his administration where they wanted service availability and quality of service to go down. So, I am thinking are we making a hypothesis about what Gov. Douglas intended, but I don’t know for myself that it is an accurate and honest reflection, just our inference.

      Is there a way to ask Jim if this is what he intended? Maybe with some follow-up questions? Or has his phone been taken by staff? :-) Actually, I am going to submit something about this to his web mail form at http://governor.vermont.gov/contact.html.

      I am disturbed, because I think there is a lot to answer for, but no one is talking much. This problem in the Benefits Service Center should be one of the top discussions in government right now. Time for answering questions about the most gigantic snafu in Vermont state government, going on in the open (thank you VTDigger). You would think answering questions would be one of Jim’s top priorities at this point. Has Governor-elect Shumlin provided any glimpse of his view and intentions in the Benefits Service Center?

      Regarding the Governor Douglas’s honest motives and explanations for the status, that is a tough issue. Maybe Jim will make a series of interviews on film after he has had a chance to be out of office awhile. Get into serious discussions on tough issues, neighbor to neighbor. Nothing opens conversation like a hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream. I cannot think of a time when I have seen Jim just sit and talk. When I have seen him, or film of him, it’s always been a crowd or a reporter’s audio/video. Even thinking about the reporters, I don’t think I ever saw Jim Douglas in deep, reflective conversation, or pressured like Jane Lindholm and Bob Kinzel put it on candidates Dubie and Shumlin.

      Anyway… if we can start with the premise that Jim is a great Vermonter, add apple pie and an hour to talk, I think Jim Douglas most likely would be delighted to share with his Vermont friends and neighbors his reflections on realities from his seat, even if some people don’t like what they hear. This is something history needs. The sooner the better too.

      I wonder if the Governor’s history class at Middlebury College will be available over the web. I would love to see that.

      Thanks for your gutsy comments.

      Dan

      • SUBMITTED TO GOVERNOR’S OFFICE
        Return to Governor’s home page.

        Hi,

        I am sorry, but I am a little confused by this form. The title is “Contact the Governor.” However, the rest of the text on the page seems to indicate this is to the Governor’s office and not directly to Jim Douglas.

        What I would like to say to Governor Douglas is,

        Hello Governor Douglas, I don’t know whether you remember me by name, we have shaken hands 2-3 times. Last time you seemed to remember, but I had a name tag on. :-)

        My reason for writing is to ask whether you might possibly be able to talk about the challenges in the Benefits Support Center, where implementation of Challenges for Change appears to have combined with increased demand to create hardship for Vermonters. This is not about casting negative light, but rather the reverse. What can Vermont state government workers do, to take more responsibility for solving the problem? I am a state government worker, but not in the Agency of Human Resources. Any comments you can share would be much appreciated. -Dan

  7. NICOLE LEBLANC :

    The state and federal government needs to do away with automatic systems. They are not cognitively accessible. We need to be able to talk to real people

  8. NICOLE LEBLANC :

    The system is not cognitively accessiblty! We can not computerized everything . Technology cannot replace people / the voice over the phone!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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