This will definitely bear watching.
Legal services lawyers for the poor have filed a class-action lawsuit demanding immediate repair of Texas’ much-criticized eligibility screening system for health and welfare programs.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Austin late Friday by two impoverished Irving women who applied for food stamps more than two months ago but still haven’t been interviewed by the state Health and Human Services Commission.
In June, the state failed to determine eligibility of more than one-third of new food stamp applicants within the federally required 30 days, the suit says.
It says the delays meant that 55,276 applicants didn’t receive word on whether they qualify. Among those kept in the dark apparently were some who don’t have money for rent or food and under state law are supposed to be processed as “expedited” cases within 24 hours.
“The law is clear. You have timeframes in which to certify people. And they are not doing that,” said Bruce Bower, deputy director of Texas Legal Services Center, which brought the suit.
“I think that they do not have enough staff to do the work,” Bower said of the commission.
Commission spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman said the state processed 50,000 more food stamp applications in the first six months of this year than in the same period last year.
“We’re drinking from a fire hose right now,” she said.
Although a privatization experiment launched four years ago drove hundreds of experienced state workers to seek other jobs, the commission has gradually added more staff – some 700 in the past year, Goodman said.
“We’ve got more workers and we’re processing more cases than we were a year ago, but it simply hasn’t been enough to keep pace with the growth in applications,” she said.
Goodman attributed many of the problems to Hurricane Ike and the economic slowdown.
“We’re asking for more staff and looking at other ways to deal with the increased workload,” she said. Goodman said the two-year budget that takes effect on Sept. 1 allows the commission to request 656 new eligibility workers, and it is doing just that.
Celia Hagert, a nutrition policy expert with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low- and middle-income Texans, said a poor economy can’t be blamed for the system’s current woes.
“The delays aren’t just a result of the recession,” Hagert said. “We’ve been out of compliance with federal performance standards for three years now. The question is whether we’re adding staff fast enough.”
I refer you to my blog post of May 19, 2008, which noted that the feds were complaining that “far too many approvals [of food stamp applications] remain untimely and call center performance needs to be more constant.” Going back to February 20, 2008, a review by the Statesman showed that “less than half — 48 percent — of Texas food stamp applications processed using the updated computer system, known as TIERS, are completed within the 30 days the federal government requires.” In other words, the excuses about Hurricane Ike and the economic slowdown are just that – excuses.
This has the potential to cost the state a lot of money. Which, given that the root cause of all this – the disastrous experiment of privatizing HHSC with Accenture – was a misguided attempt by the state to save money, would be rather ironic. And when the federal judge ultimately socks it to us, remember that we will have Rick Perry to thank for it. HHSC Employee has more.
UPDATE: I received the following email in response to this:
Dear Mr. Kuffner:
In your Aug. 5 post about the lawsuit filed by two Irving residents against the Texas Health and Human Services Commission alleging a failure to process food stamp applications in a timely manner, you erroneously link this issue to the integrated eligibility project managed by the Accenture-led Texas Access Alliance from 2005-2007
The fact is that the Alliance only handled food stamp applications for Travis and Hays counties – just two of Texas ’ 254 counties. These two counties represent just seven percent of Texas ’s total food stamp population. The vast majority of the backlog of food stamp applications exist across the state, including in Dallas County where the two Irving women reside. It is inaccurate to link our 2007 project in two counties to statewide food stamp application backlogs in 2009.
I thought you might appreciate knowing the facts.
Peter Y. Soh