CLEVELAND, Ohio — A costly new state system, meant to streamline the food-stamp application process, is drawing harsh criticism from Ohio’s food banks, who say it’s making it harder for needy people to get food assistance.
After previously testing it in a five-county pilot, the state in August diverted all food stamp applications through the new online platform, the Ohio Benefits System. The system, estimated to cost the state and federal government $539 million by the time it’s finished, first launched in 2014, when the state set it up to process Medicaid applications.
Lisa Hamler Fugitt, executive director of the professional association that represents Ohio’s food banks, said she’s heard anecdotes from members across the state about problems with the new system.
Those problems have included notices for mandatory applicant interviews being sent to the wrong address, or people trying to call in for a required phone interview, only to wait on hold for an hour or two before giving up. This has led people to be improperly denied food stamps, some of whom didn’t find out until they tried to check out at the grocery store line, she said.
“I’m completely in a state of shock on the cost alone of the system,” she said. “… But this system’s been out there since 2014. This is 2019. And for $539 million, you’d think we would have gotten it right.”
State, county officials say transition going well despite headaches
State officials acknowledge the transition has caused headaches, but said the biggest problems have been a result of mistakes by county caseworkers, rather than the system itself. County job and family services departments have focused on training workers to become more familiar with the new system, officials said.
“Throughout February, we are providing technical assistance to county agencies to ensure that applications submitted online are being processed properly and in accordance with policy,” said Brett Crow, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
Joel Potts, the executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association, said the new system is working about as well as can be expected.
“I would say we’re very pleased in the direction we’re going, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Potts said.
The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as food stamps, is a federally funded program that provides food for the poor. Eligibility for the program is 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $32,640 annually for a family of four. Instead of the old-fashioned stamps, recipients now receive a debit card, loaded monthly, that can be used to buy approved food products at stores.
Food stamp recipients also are required to work a certain number of hours a week, attend classes or other “work-related activities.” However, Ohio in October loosened work requirements in 11 counties, including Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Erie, Lorain and Lucas (Toledo) counties. The looser requirements had already been in place for 26 counties, mostly in Eastern Ohio.
Reduced personal interaction
To apply for food stamps, Ohioans must show they meet the income requirements and prove their citizenship, among other steps. But a major change in the new system is that it’s de-emphasizing in-person applications and verification meetings in favor of an online process and phone calls. The old system also had a support network of “helpers,” who were able to directly file applications on people’s behalf. The helpers included employees of food banks, which got state funding to help with applications.
This has led to anecdotes of interview notices being sent to the wrong address, or people calling a new state hotline to verify their eligibility at a designated time, only to give up after waiting on hold, according to Kristin Warzocha, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.
“If you’re a working poor single mom, you can’t wait for two hours. if you have a cell phone with limited minutes, you can’t wait for two hours,” she said.
The new system also automatically kicks people off the rolls if they don’t re-apply every six months, instead of requiring a county caseworker to do it manually. These enrollment issues can put extra strain on food banks and other community organizations that help the needy, she said.
“It seems as though this was not a new system that was developed with the client in mind. It is hard to get the benefit and it’s very easy to lose it,” Warzocha said.
John Corlett, the president and executive director of the Center for Community Solutions, a left-leaning Cleveland health-policy think-tank, said the new system leaves behind people who are less technologically adept, which is more likely among the elderly and poor.
“The state is moving to a no-touch system,” said Corlett, a former state Medicaid director under Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, who wrote a recent op-ed published on cleveland.com that criticized the new system. “And in this kind of world, it doesn’t seem like that works very well, because there are always exceptions to the rules.”
Warzocha said officials with her organization grew concerned after hearing complaints from residents that their food stamp applications were denied.
Before the change, she said, the statewide average for rejections was 31 percent. In the aftermath of the change, the food bank checked applications it had helped people fill out. It found 77 percent of them were rejected. After working with Cuyahoga County officials, she said the number has improved, but she’s concerned the same situation is playing out across the state.
“It’s a very significant drop, and we have trained staff who are essentially experts on eligibility and the application process,” she said. “If only 23 percent of our clients are getting approved, there’s a very good chance that folks who are trying to do this on their own are much lower.”
However, unlike the old system, the new system doesn’t yet have the ability to report rejection rates, like the old food-stamp application system did. Just last week, the state released its first enrollment data since August.
Overall food stamp enrollment declining statewide
That data showed that statewide food-stamp enrollment in October 2018 had dropped by 5.5 percent compared to the previous October. But that was on par with the ongoing trend — enrollment in October 2017 had dropped 5.9 percent compared to October 2016.
State officials have attributed the ongoing decline to an improving economy. But a county-by-county review shows the 2018 year-over-year decline is much greater in a handful of urban and rural counties, according to a cleveland.com analysis.
In Lucas County, food-stamp enrollment in October 2018 declined 12.3 percent compared to the previous year. The decline for the previous 12 months was only 3.5 percent.
Despite the Cleveland Food Bank’s observations about applications in Cuyahoga County, applications here in October 2018 were actually up 2.2 percent compared to the previous year. That made it one of only eight Ohio counties where applications went up (the others were Carroll, Crawford, Darke, Delaware, Madison, Miami and Warren counties.)
Without the old reporting capabilities, it’s unclear whether declines in enrollment are a result of people raising their income enough that they no longer qualify, or whether they were kicked off the rolls. Cuyahoga County officials did not respond to an interview request for this story.
But directors of the largest 10 county social services agency recently held a conference call to discuss concerns with the new system. Potts, the director of the Ohio JFS directors association, said none believed it had caused a significant decline in the number of people receiving food stamps.
“In general, there are problems and frustrations and things that we want fixed. But we’re not hearing anything that really says we’re at a crisis,” Potts said.
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