The continuing HHSC saga

Most of what’s in this Chron story about the problems with the Health and Human Services Commission and its problems processing food stamp applications is stuff we’ve seen before. Just a couple of things to highlight:

Some welcome a recent class-action lawsuit that accuses the state of violating federal rules requiring food stamp applications to be certified within 30 days. Many applicants must wait months before they get food assistance.

“The morale is very, very low right now just because of the amount of work. Staying late kind of wears a person down, so you get a lot of absenteeism, which contributes,” says Joan Barasch, who has worked nearly 20 years for the state. “We are just getting bombarded with complaints of cases not being done on time.”

Because of the ailing economy, the Health and Human Services Commission has seen a significant increase in food stamp applications this year. Statewide, 2.8 million Texans received food assistance last month compared with 2.5 million in August 2008 and 2.3 million in August 2007.

More workers are needed, agency spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman conceded, “but we don’t know if we will need more workers in a year.”

“We’ve got 2,000 more employees than we did three years ago, and we’re adding more workers,” Goodman said. “But it takes a year or two to get workers trained and skilled enough to handle a full caseload.”

HHSC let a lot of its employees go as part of the ill-fated privatization experiment, and of course it’s going through the pain of the TIERS update and expansion. It’s been hiring some of them back, but that takes time as well. There’s a lot of factors that have contributed to the position that it’s in today.

“It’s really a ratty deal to treat people this way,” she said. “This is the most down-and-out group of folks, and you will continue to see that as the economy (struggles).”

She contends some lawmakers deliberately starve state government to keep costs down. The federal government pays for the food stamps and shares the cost of running the program with the state. The state’s share this year amounts to about $181 million, which also includes administrative costs for Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

“There’s a controlling line of thought in the Legislature — if you make it difficult for people to receive services, then they won’t apply. We are seeing that,” Farrar said.

Well, yeah. That’s the dirty little secret of our state government, in which this kind of neglect isn’t an accident or an oversight but a strategy. Remember all those battles we had over six month versus twelve month re-enrollment cycles, for things like CHIP? Same idea. That’s going to be a long, hard battle to change.

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