Let's face it, not a lot of people who receive food stamp benefits like to talk about it in public. 11Alive is proud that much of what we've been able to uncover about the problems within DFCS' program, have come from building trust within the community. Since October, our almost daily research and/or reports have fostered an openness with beneficiaries and relationships with employees at DFCS who care about the people they serve and want to see true reform and change.
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April 15, 2015: DHS Commissioner Keith Horton issues a statement after reviewing the USDA's formal warning letter -- the first such letter written in more than a decade.
In the last several weeks, the Department has made significant strides toward prompt processing of applications and renewals for public assistance.
I am proud of our staffs extraordinary achievements, which are evidenced by the USDA's letter recognizing our progress and stating strong feelings that our strategies are the right ones to correct this situation.
April 14, 2014: USDA issues Georgia a formal warning letter. It's the first time in more than a decade the federal government has gone this far to demand change. The USDA does reduce the penalty for failure to comply to $15 million in administrative funds.
April 11, 2014: One week after the request is made, the USDA has yet to approve a waiver allowing DFCS to immediately grant food stamp benefits to 2,673 backlogged applicants. Despite the federal governments inaction, DFCS says it has processed all but 17 of the cases. The USDA has also yet to decide whether to issue a formal warning letter, which could jeopardize $75 million in federal funding.
April 8, 2014: Dozens of applicants outside the Cobb County DFCS office try to get through to the call center. Due to high call volume, no one is able to get help. Those that have reached an agent in days prior, still report hold times of up to two hours.
An open records request reveals an USDA email stating 72% of callers the week of March 7th were still getting dropped by the phone system.
April 5, 2014: DHS submits a request asking for federal waiver to approve expedited cases.
April 4, 2014: Commissioner Horton directly addresses questions from the media for the first time by phone. He says 99% of the original backlog from March has been cleared. But another 5,500 are now past due and the state continues to receive 22,000 new cases each week.
April 3, 2014: The Atlanta Community Food Bank reports month after month record growth in demand, due in part to families still unable to get food stamp assistance.
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April 2, 2014: DFCS division director Sharon Hill sends out an internal memo, warning staff to follow federal regulations and state policy in processing applications. A phone number and email is provided for staff to report wrongdoing.
11Alive confronts the Governor, asking whether he feels misled about the severity of the ongoing problems. Later that day, the Governor orders DHS to request a federal waiver immediately approving food stamp benefits for those applicants who claim little to no income.
April 1, 2014: DHS submits its updated Corrective Action Plan to the USDA. Commissioner Horton says of the 30,000 cases marked as a priority by the USDA, only 337 are past due.
11Alive reports accusations from several employees that supervisors are telling them to shred applications, close them without conducting an eligibility interview or approving them without due diligence. DFCS denies any such orders.
11Alive learns the state has hired a private company, Cambria Solutions, to audit the food stamp program, offer solutions and lobby the USDA to maintain funding. An open records request shows the company's services will cost approximately $241,942 in taxpayer money. The lead advisor will make $235/hr.
11Alive learns despite hiring 500 new employees, the department has lost just as many.
March 19, 2014: DHS submits its new Corrective Action Plan, promising to add a substantial number of new staff in the next 90 days.
DHS admits mailed notices continue to go out late and that until it improves the call center, problems with meeting customer demand will remain.
DFCS fixes a programming error that has allowed 35,500 families to receive a total of up to $10 million in duplicate payments since 1999.
March 14, 2014: Governor claims he only learned about the severity of the problem recently. 11Alive obtains emails through an open records request that show his office was alerted to the problem in November.
March 12, 2014: After repeated request for comment, the Governor finally releases a statement agreeing the problems within DFCS are unacceptable.
March 11, 2014: National Center for Law and Economic Justice files a class action lawsuit against the state for failing to follow federal regulations in processing food stamp applications.
March 7, 2014: Employees are notified they will have to perform at least 8 hours of overtime each week until the case backlog is gone. DHS promises to hire 600 new staff to increase the number of phone agents, lobby staff, keyers and processors.
March 6, 2014: An internal email is sent to staff calling the backlog in applications a "crisis" and warning staff DFCS is now in an "emergency situation."
11Alive uncovers 166,000 cases for food stamps, Medicaid and other social services are past due. Our report prompts a statement from Commissioner Keith Horton which says in part: "A series of events, including a transition to a new business process, hurdles with technology and staffing shortages, have had a negative impact on those eligible for food stamp benefits in Georgia."
11Alive reports nearly 2,000 DFCS employees will be required to do mandatory overtime. An open records request reveals the cost of that overtime to taxpayers will be approximately $470,000 a week.
March 5, 2014: 11Alive obtains an exclusive copy of a USDA warning letter, calling Georgia's food stamp program a "serious failure" and threatens to cut $75 million in federal funding by May 1st, if significant changes are not made. The state is given until March 19th to submit a new Corrective Action Plan and until March 31st to prove changes have been made to handle the current case load.
A review by the USDA finds 34 regulatory deficiencies or findings, 12 of them unresolved from the prior fiscal year. The USDA recognizes problems with the phone line, reporting excessive hold times and system drop outs. The USDA says 74 out of 81 calls, or 91.4%, it made to the call center were unanswered or disconnected by the system.
February 17, 2014: 11Alive analyzes a series of internal emails and open records requests to uncover software problems that have left workers with only four full days out of the month to process claims. 11Alive learns employees are having to manually re-enter applications from the Compass system where clients originally apply, into SUCCESS, the state's eligibility software. DHS will later put out bids for a new integrated software system to eliminate the redundancy and technical delays.
February: DHS creates a new self-service function on its Georgia One communication line to reduce the number of callers that need to speak to an agent.
January: DHS begins to post notices online so clients can receive them electronically as well as through the mail, reducing the risk clients miss important messages about their benefits.
December 4, 2013: DHS sends its Corrective Action Plan to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, FNS.
November: 11Alive starts reporting on the steady stream of emails and phone calls coming in, regarding problems with the state's food stamp program. Beneficiaries claim to be losing benefits by no fault of their own, either because of trouble getting through on the new centralized intake system, Georgia One, or receiving notification of their eligibility interview after its scheduled time.
The Department of Human Services, or DHS, which administers the program for the USDA, admits a series of mailings went out late, if at all, causing 66,576 families to unexpectedly lose their food stamp support. The USDA demands a Corrective Action Plan to handle ongoing problems with its process. A monitoring system to track notices is developed.
October 15, 2013: Another vendor issue delays the processing of renewal reminders.
September 11, 2013: A mailing to remind clients about their need to renew their benefits goes out late to thousands of beneficiaries, if at all.
August 2012: Due to growing demand for services, the state begins to roll out Georgia One, a new centralized intake process. Applicants submit their initial claim online using Compass, then conduct a phone interview to verify eligibility. Georgia's food stamp program serves about 1.9 million people. That number has more than doubled in the past five years.