Food stamp beneficiaries must repay as much as $2,000 to the feds

The federal government has fined the state $500,000 for two years’ worth of overpayments to food stamp beneficiaries in Vermont.

The Vermont Department for Children and Families has one of the highest “error” rates in the country, and it looks like the state will be sanctioned again next year for failing to provide accurate benefit amounts to low-income Vermonters who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, also known as SNAP.

The glitch? The DCF formula consistently miscalculates incomes for beneficiaries, resulting in benefit levels that exceed the amount participants in the program actually qualify for.

In addition to the fine the state must pay, the Vermonters who are ultimately on the hook for the agency’s overpayments are the very people who participate in Vermont’s 3SquaresVT program. The government is requiring recipients who received larger amounts than they qualify for to repay the difference. (The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is federally funded and overseen by the USDA. DCF oversees the state version of the program, known as 3SquaresVT.)

In some cases, recipients are faced with $2,000 in repayments to the feds.

Vermont rarely skimps on food benefits, according to United States Department of Agriculture error data; the Department for Children and Families is inclined to issue too much money.

But that’s not reassuring for the 429 families and individuals who are currently paying back the $400 or more they were given because of the state’s miscalculations.

Sylvia received a curt letter from the state in May, informing her that she owed more than $2,000 to the federal government owing to the department’s mishap. The letter requested that she “begin cash payments by the first of next month.”

For food stamp recipients like Sylvia, who asked not to be identified, an out-of-the-blue bill for $2,000 can spell serious financial stress. Marissa Parisi, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, an anti-hunger advocacy group says the onus should be on the state to make the repayments, and they are calling on Gov. Peter Shumlin and lawmakers to make money available to hold recipients harmless.

“If families make no mistake and the agency makes mistakes, they shouldn’t be saddled with debt. It’s just not fair,” Parisi said.

Creative Commons photo

Creative Commons photo

So far, state officials haven’t made any promises.

“It’s something that personally I feel terrible about,” DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone said, but, “If Vermont were to say, ‘we are going to pay for the errors we created,’ we would be the only state in the nation to do so. It would be really setting a precedent.”

High error rates

Vermont has among the worst state error rates for food stamp administration in the nation. Vermont’s error rate was 48th in the nation for fiscal year 2012. A shortage of staff and outdated technology contribute to complaints that the system is at once too generous and too restrictive.

Shumlin, when asked whether recipients should be responsible for paying these bills, said, “We are working hard to try to straighten it out. As you know, we’ve been hiring there, and you know I’m confident we’ll get better results in the future.”

The state’s error rate also reflects instances in which eligible people have had applications turned down, due to a miscalculation of their income. In fiscal year 2012, there were 34 known cases that were rejected, according to DCF officials.

The 3SquaresVT program turned down Mary and her family for nine months.

Mary homeschools her three teenage daughters and works part time at a friend’s toy store. Her husband, who is self-employed, does heating and plumbing work. During the spring of 2012, his work slowed. Several car repairs and a dental procedure — neither Mary nor her husband have health or dental insurance — put the family on the financial edge.

Mary, who asked that her real name not be used due to her family’s hesitancy about receiving food stamps in the first place, decided they needed help, and she submitted an application for 3Squares.

“I believe that program is meant to be a temporary help, and that’s what I was looking for,” Mary said. “It was frustrating not to be able to get the help when I really needed it. Every month I’d be wondering if it was coming this month, putting off buying this, wondering if it’s going to come.”

DCF determined that the family’s income was too high to qualify. Mary was convinced they were wrong because much of the paperwork she’d received from the department, according to her, had been riddled with inaccurate information.

“Every time they would come back with something, there would be a piece that would be incorrect. One time I got paperwork for some name and some company that I’d never heard of,” Mary recalled. “They couldn’t keep things straight. It wasn’t that confusing— there’s myself and my husband and my three children.”

The story behind the error rate

The program’s woes, according to the Shumlin administration, can be traced to two sources: the economic recession and changes made under the Douglas administration.

The recession, coupled with an expansion of the program’s eligibility requirements, boosted participation levels from 28,000 people in FY 2008 to 52,000 in FY 2012.

During 2009 and 2010, at the end of the Douglas administration, the program disbanded its five-person training unit and cut back on its benefits specialists, as part of the “Challenges for Change” initiative. At the same time, it pulled 30 staff from district offices to work in centralized processing office and call center. Yacovone describes this as a “failed attempt at modernization” that left district offices understaffed.

“There was a real reduction in the employment force — state workers running the program — at the same time that we exponentially increased eligibility … So that coalescing of those two issues made it tough from an administrative standpoint,” Shumlin said.

The USDA conducted a “payment accuracy review” in December 2012 and found that caseloads had increased from roughly 400 cases per worker to 1,000 per worker.

What DCF is doing about errors

“We’ve been methodically trying to address this,” Yacovone said. The department recently hired three trainers and 14 new benefits specialists, and it’s brought caseloads down to about 650 per worker. Yacovone said his goal is to bring that number below 500, and he thinks the error rate — which has been too high by USDA standards since FY 2010 — will take drop significantly by January.

DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone addresses advocates at a meeting at the Agency of Human Services Tuesday. Deputy Commissioner Richard Giddings is sitting behind him. Photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

Department for Children and Families Commissioner Dave Yacovone addresses a meeting at the Agency of Human Services last spring. Deputy Commissioner Richard Giddings is sitting behind him. Photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

Starting in January, the 3SquaresVT staff will no longer have to handle health insurance applications, and Yacovone said relieving them of this duty is the equivalent of adding 15 new staff.

The commissioner also points out that the overpayment rates, though high, are still just a fraction of total benefits they distribute. In FY 2013, only 141 of roughly 50,000 households have been saddled with an overpayment, totaling $132,000.

And Yacovone says the department does all it can to lessen the debt burden, either by coming up with a payment plan or by forgiving part of the overpayment. (The USDA has a formula that allows states to forgive part of the debt in certain situations.)

“I cannot say right now we will pay back our errors, but I can commit to writing off as much as I can,” Yacovone said.

IT struggles

There’s a third issue, too, that likely won’t get resolved for several years. Staff rely on a database that dates back to 1981.

Yacovone described the system: “If you were to sit at the screen, it’s really like going back in time.” The USDA says the state is also too dependent on the program Excel which can only be used by a limited number of people. When the system crashes — which happened during their assessment — it costs $32,000 per hour in lost productivity.

DCF is going to use the database being developed for the state’s health insurance system, but by Yacovone’s estimates, that transition won’t take place for another three years.

That timeframe didn’t appease the USDA officials who reviewed the program in December. Their report concluded, “ESD should make 3SquaresVT, a greater IT priority given the $141 million plus contribution into the Vermont economy.”

Advocates, too, are dissatisfied with the pace of DCF’s progress.

“This might be one of those cases where we need to make an investment in a shorter-term solution also and that might mean upgrading our current system,” John Sayles, the executive director of the Vermont Foodbank, suggested.

Vermont Foodbank CEO John Sayles VTD/Josh Larkin

Vermont Foodbank CEO John Sayles. Photo by Josh Larkin/VTDigger

Sayles said the uncertainty surrounding federal funding — Congress has yet to agree on a new funding bill for the program, but both Senate and House versions include cuts, and, regardless, benefits will be reduced in November when stimulus funds expire — adds to the urgency.

“There’s a tremendous amount of urgency. The charitable food system isn’t in any kind of position to make up for cuts in federal programs.”

Advocates are also concerned about eligible people who aren’t taking advantage of the program because the process is too complicated. According to HungerFree Vermont, only 30 percent of eligible seniors are enrolled in the program.

In the meantime

As Mary submitted, and resubmitted wage stubs, tax returns, mortgage documents, her family started racking up credit card debt to get by. Mary said she considers herself fortunate that her credit was good enough to allow her to that.

The other godsend, she said, was that her husband is a hunter. “The venison we had — we usually get a few deer a year and he also shot a couple of turkeys — was … I can’t imagine if we had to buy meat. That would have been too much.”

After several months of sending mail back and forth, and attempting to straighten details out with different department staff members over the phone, Mary appealed the decision.

“I have a stack of papers at least two inches thick of our correspondences.”

She contacted Vermont Legal Aid, and with the help of a lawyer there, won her case in December and finally started receiving $364 monthly deposits, retroactive back to August.

While the money was a help, Mary said, it didn’t undo the months-long ordeal she’d gone through to get it, nor did it lessen the debt on her credit card. Her daughters, too, had made sacrifices that could have been avoided.

“You don’t do music lessons, you don’t do dance lessons, you don’t go to movies, you don’t go out to eat. In the summer it’s easier because beaches are free.”

Mary and one of her daughters have food allergies — to gluten, yeast and dairy — and that made things even more difficult.

“I have always been frugal about shopping. You watch the sale ads, you cut the coupons, you go to the discounts stores, you choose the foods that are more filling and cheaper.” But pinching pennies on items like almond milk and gluten-free bread isn’t as easy. “Those kinds of thing became treats,” Mary said.

And then in April, Mary got yet another letter from DCF saying they had made an error, and she was, in fact, ineligible for the program. Fed up, she decided not to appeal.

“There was nothing left in me to go through that again.”

Mary, who kept meticulous records throughout her experience, said she thinks she’s probably one of a few who actually contest their turned-down applications.

“I think a lot of people get that letter in mail, and they say ‘oh well.’ They will just bow out and do what they have to do to. People know how to survive.”

Legislative action?

Hunger advocates including Sayles and Parisi made their case to a group of lawmakers that met at the Statehouse in later August to discuss the 3SquaresVT program.

After the meeting, at least one senator — Anthony Pollina, P-Washington — has started exploring a legislative solution.

“The one thing that really struck me was to how the overpayments are handled,” Pollina said. “I think it’s ridiculous.” Pollina is looking for a way to address the situation through legislation, and he also wants to find ways to simplify the process.

“I’m looking into the language to make sure everything is in plain English to make sure people can understand what is happening,” he said.

But Pollina said he doesn’t think wording changes and additional funding to cover the people’s debts will solve the program’s problems.

“We are not willing to fund the workforce. That is one of the critical pieces we need to change. All the training in the world is not going to make it any easier to handle 600 cases at a time.”

Follow Alicia on Twitter @aefreese

Comments

  1. The article reads, in part:

    [...]

    THE STORY BEHIND THE ERROR RATE

    The program’s woes, according to the Shumlin administration, can be traced to two sources: the economic recession and changes made under Douglas administration.

    [...]

    During 2009 and 2010, at the end of the Douglas administration, the program disbanded its five-person training unit and cut back on its benefits specialists, as part of the “Challenges for Change” initiative. At the same time, it pulled 30 staff from district offices to work in centralized processing office and call center. Yacovone describes this as a “failed attempt at modernization” that left district offices understaffed.

    “There was a real reduction in the employment force — state workers running the program — at the same time that we exponentially increased eligibility… So that coalescing of those two issues made it tough from an administrative standpoint,” Shumlin said.

    [...]

    Although the above might be true, at least in part and including about the changes brought about during the administration of Governor Douglas, the fault is not entirely all due to his administration and their policies.

    This is because these changes were also approved by the state legislature, which — if I recall correctly — was well dominated by Democrats then as well and had included the current Governor as well as several members of his administration, back when they were serving as state legislators at the time.

    Thus, if blame is to be passed around for the current mess, they deserve an equal share as well.

    Not only that, but continually kicking the dubious can down the road, including by blaming the previous administration for ongoing woes, only works for so long.

    The problem with it is that after one has been Governor for nearly one and a half terms, it might be high time to consider owning up to accepting some responsibility for not being able to get a handle on the situation and fix the mess.

    Thanks to all those who were responsible for bringing it about when the previous administration was in power, thee mess is not solely limited to the food stamp debacle either.

    Word from reliable sources is that things are in a real mess both at DCF and elsewhere within AHS as well.

    So much for leadership.

  2. Bob Orleck :

    Good Grief! It is way past time that we fire Shumlin and his incompetent staff for what they have and are doing to our state. Wake up folks! Its up to us to get rid of them. If we can’t fire them we must vote them out. We must! One issue after another and the other shoes haven’t dropped yet. Just wait and see.

  3. Carl Werth :

    One thing you can count on with this administration – nothing is ever their fault.

  4. Pam Ladds :

    I really do not care whose “fault” it is. It certainly is not the fault of those who received the food stamps. “It’s something that personally I feel terrible about,” DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone said, but, “If Vermont were to say, ‘we are going to pay for the errors we created,’ we would be the only state in the nation to do s!! o. It would be really setting a precedent.”

    Setting a precedent? They most certainly should! And the fact that the other States do not do this is irrelevant. It is hard enough existing on food stamps without paying for someone else’s mistakes. VT – Do the Right Thing.

    • Lee Russ :

      Couldn’t agree more. The only time that recipients should be responsible for repayment is when they had good reason to know the payments were wrong but took them anyway.

      In situations where they had no way to know there was an error, it’s absurd to expect repayment from people who wouldn’t be on food stamps if they were capable of making the repayments.

    • David Dempsey :

      Right on Lee. Governor Shumlin has a propensity for making Vermont the first state in the nation to do anything without concern for the risks involved. Yet his appointed commissioner of DCF comes out and says that if “we are going to pay for the errors we created, we would be the only state in the nation to do so.” I wonder if he knows how stupid that statement is. Heaven forbid that we should have to pay for the errors we created. But Shumlin can take the heat of his appointee just by being true himself. Come on Governor, take the challenge, make Vermont the first state in the nation to pay for its own errors

  5. Sarah Frankmann :

    I do not think these recipients should be held accountable for the State’s mistakes. So Vermont will be different than the other 49 states — what’s new there?

    One side note and I’m not trying to be mean … no music lessons, no dance lessons, no movies. Seriously? Welcome to my childhood. When did all of those things become requirements or necessities? My parents managed to raise four children on working class wages and they never would have asked for food assistance. We got hand-me-downs for clothes, bought at rummage and yard sales, canned food, picked only drop apples because we couldn’t afford any others, etc. I know a lot of people still do these things, and they are things to be proud of.

  6. Wayne Andrews :

    Lets these individuals who received the excess food stamps work it off in their local school, town library, town office and highway crew. Maybe the local YMCA or food pantry.
    Of course the liberals will believe this is demeaning.

    • Dawn Wolfson :

      No, I don’t, not at all. It’s a reasonable solution to the problem. Of course, I prefer to think of myself as a radical. :-)

  7. David Connor :

    If the federal govt. is fining VT for the number of violations and inaccuracies in our food stamp allocations and it may take several years to correct these errors and improve our technology and supply sufficient staff to eliminate more of these errors, will Vermont continue to be fined and sanctioned for all the errors that accumulate over the years before our state system has fully recovered from its inadequate and deficient system of record keeping and disbursement?

  8. Daniel Emery :

    I find commissioner Yacovone’s statement so out of charactor for Vermont, which over the past decade has become increasingly liberal.

    Whether it means being first in the nation to take responsibility for its admitted errors not just acknowledge them, or being first for the many other first in nation moves, the latest being the single payer medical insurance.

    We taxcpayers have to reimburse govt for our errors. What is wrong to be first setting a precedent for responsible and not putting the cost of State errors on the ones that can least afford it.?

    If The reciepients information was submitted eroniously, they should have to pay back the State.
    Regardless of the reasons listed in this article, it comes down to the State or some employees errors or incompetance. This should be unacceptable and have consequences for the persons responsible.

    I believe that the people that receive these benefits would rather try to get by day to day rather than get help from the state and then be presented with a large, never expected, bill of which was no fault of their own.

    I hope this question is brought up during the next election and candidates are pushed for yes or no answer, not politics as usual.

  9. rosemarie jackowski :

    Thanks for this article. It explains why many who are poor enough to qualify for food stamps, don’t even apply. Fear keeps a lot of Vermonters hungry.

    The people are often treated with extreme disrespect. It is usually assumed that any one who asks for help is a ‘crook’ …guilty until proven innocent.

    Also, when the state makes a ‘mistake’ no one is held responsible. One improvement that should be made is to be able to identify the person in the system who writes the rules. Imagine having a job where you are totally anonymous and can never be held responsible. Most of us who have worked all of our lives, never could avoid responsibility. Anyone making mistakes like this in the real world would be fired on the spot.

  10. rosemarie jackowski :

    Who made the decision to hold the people responsible for the mistakes of the government? Please name him/her.

    Is it legal to hold someone responsible for the acts of another? Though, legalities are rarely important in Vermont. This is a perfect example of why we need an AG who puts the people first. Voting matters.

    Here is a solution. Ask the governor to pay back the money from his personal funds. Is it owed to the feds?

    It is very clear that holding the people responsible is unfair. We need to ‘encourage’ the governor to do the right thing. If that fails, then we have to move on to Plan B.

  11. Deb Chadwick :

    I am a retiree from the State and a few years ago, dealt with the Food Stamp Program, among other programs. Even back then, there were many errors due to budget cuts, inadequate training, huge caseloads, antiquated databases, “revamping” of the program and bi-monthly switching of caseworkers. Also, some caseworkers had more than their share of work, while others almost none so I was not surprised with this article as it is an aged old problem. Blame our gov’t for some of the above and poor management/organization for the others. Too bad the people that really need this benefit have to suffer and NO they should not be held accountable for paying back the STATE’s error.

  12. Bob Dobalina :

    It’s called workload folks, double the work load in fact ,. And what did Douglass do in response to this ? Cut state jobs and allowed others to go by the way side through attrition. The state finally recieved the go ahead to hire a limited amount of workers two years AFTER the problems began. “The USDA conducted a “payment accuracy review” in December 2012 and found that caseloads had increased from roughly 400 cases per worker to 1,000 per worker.” You can’t have it both ways, if you want payment accuracy and folks to have thier benefits in a timely manner, than you have to support the workload with proper staffing..And your next gripe will be there’s too many state workers…welome to the cunundrum of a vastly ineffective two party system…One day you’ll all realize that it’s not about Dems VS Reps, but special interest politicians VS the rest of us..Until then, they win!

    • Pam Ladds :

      You are correct!

    • David Dempsey :

      Shortage of staff is a problem, but it isn’t an excuse for the existing staff and managements poor performance.

      • Bob Dobalina :

        Actually David, I’m not saying it’s an excuse, I’m saying that work load diectly effects performance..most of the jobs take at least 3 years to become profiient in. The problem is , there’s no “time outs” while the state attempts to get back up to speed. The fact Vermonters have become more dependant on these programs is a simple fact. If you’re looking to point fingers, look no further than the Feds for poinitless procedures dictated by politicians who have Zero concept of what people deal with on a daily basis. I don’t disagree that we could be doing things better..But a majoity of these programs are regulated federally, and if you haven’t noticed, they aren’t exactly the most efficient bunch.

  13. David Black :

    Does this explain why so many recipients of an entitlement are under-nurished?

  14. rosemarie jackowski :

    How ironic…Vermont a beautiful, rural, farm state where lettuce has become a luxury that many cannot afford. No hyperbole there. Some people have switched from lettuce to cabbage salads because it is cheaper. What happens when we can no longer afford cabbage?

    Is this how it feels to live in an Empire when it is coming to an end?

    • Lee Russ :

      I believe it’s how it feels to live in a country dedicated to the concept of a free market “global economy” without regard to how that economy affects its own citizens.

      And that is truly a bipartisan problem.

    • Kathy Nelson :

      Bill, I don’t know where you’ve been buying seeds but 25 cents for a package of them sounds like something from the 1970s. And what makes you think everybody has a plot of land to grow crops on? Families crowded together is foul slums (and yes, there are slums in VT) don’t have any way to grow their own food. Even if you could get a garden going you may be too poor to afford storage space to keep it and then you must decide whether to pay the electric bill to keep the fridge running or buy shoes for your kid to wear to school. There is no easy answer for those people trapped in the cycle of poverty and to insinuate they are just lazy is cruel.
      VT has a governor who robs from the poor to help his rich buddies get richer. Shumlin likes to deal out cushy jobs to his friends, how about attaching Shumlin’s salary for HIS mistakes over at DCF and AHS. The problem is on his watch and as avowed captain of the ship he can man the bailing bucket or sink with the ship.

  15. Saddling people so hard up they’re on benefits with this “debt” by administrative failure is unconscionable.

  16. Dave Bellini :

    It’s true that the Douglas administration made cuts with no concern about consequences. That was a few years ago however. When does this administration start taking responsibility? A good place to start is to hold managers responsible for results. The Shumlin talks about “performance contracting” but doesn’t appear to apply this philosophy to agency secretaries and department commissioners. It’s OK to fail these days. No problem. Another “nothing burger.”
    .
    “Are we in competent hands?”
    “Certainly, we’re all incompetent here! Nyuk, Nyuk, Nyuk”

  17. rosemarie jackowski :

    I was up all night thinking about these poor folks. As Vermonters we need to stick together and support them – by any means necessary.

    There are many important principles involved – moral and legal. Would it be acceptable for Price Chopper to come after you if you bought a loaf of bread a month ago for $2. – could they then come weeks later and say that they had made a mistake and mismarked the bread . It should have cost $5 per loaf? Think about the legal precedent that would be set with that one.

    Also, why is the VT AG not supporting the people ? (I know the answer to that one.)

    Where is the ACLU, VT Legal Aid, etc?

    As Vermonters, we need to help. The people should ignore the ‘request’ to pay the Feds… unless that would put them in too much jeopardy. In the meantime, we all should support them any way we can.

    Please contact your legislators and those in Congress. We need to hear what they have to say. Silence shows a lack of compassion. Please extend a hand to anyone in your community who needs help.

    • As to why someone or otherwise some entity who one might believe should be doing something about such matters and is not; as I was informed many different times on previous occasions of being outraged and urging something be done to addresses one injustice or another, whomever it is typically replies that they always have much bigger fish to fry as well as also having to pick their battles and so on. Read: deliberate indifference, even among those one would think are natural allies. There lies a huge part of the problem and it is a real deep one, which has allowed to quietly fester within this state over years and years, much like is the case elsewhere.

  18. ““It’s something that personally I feel terrible about,” DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone said, but, “If Vermont were to say, ‘we are going to pay for the errors we created,’ we would be the only state in the nation to do so. It would be really setting a precedent.”

    GO AHEAD, DAVE. BE A REAL MAN! DO IT!

    2LT Dennis Morrisseau USArmy [Vietnam era] retired. W. Pawlet, VT 802 645 9727
    dmorso1@netzero.net

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