USDA cautiously lifts threat to cut food stamp funding

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- In March, more than 166,000 families were caught in an application backlog. The state's failure to act, led to a formal warning letter, the USDA's first in more than a decade.

Today, that backlog is gone. So to is the USDA's threat to cut $15 million in federal funding for the program.

"The State has made strides in providing service to those households that experienced delays in receiving their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits," said Regional Administrator Robin Bailey in a letter to the Commissioner.

But the letter still expressed concerns with the state's call center and told DHS it would need to submit weekly reports on hold times and other measures of program access every week for at least 90 days.

Rosa Lee Slaven feels betrayed by the USDA's decision. She's still fighting to get benefits and says if improvements have been made, they haven't helped her.

"I can't get a hold of them," said Slaven.

Slaven says she calls almost every day. Tuesday, she waited for more than an hour before giving up.

The last data given to us by DFCS shows of 55,882 calls made regarding food stamp renewals, only 38%received help. The remaining 62% were either disconnected by the system, or the beneficiary, unable to wait any longer.

"I have sat down night after night, my son don't know it but I have cried because I cannot get nothing to eat for him," said Slaven.

It's been more than two months since Slaven, or the 13-year old grandson she cares for, has received food stamp benefits. Neither has had breakfast today. She's got no clue what to do for lunch or dinner either.

Slaven says its amazing, considering taxpayers have spent nearly $4 million on overtime to process applications and another $250,000 on a consultant to solve the problems that got the state here in the first place.

Slaven doesn't have a computer or car. She is exactly the kind of beneficiary who could benefit most from the new system if it actually worked as intended.

Instead, she logs hours of on hold time and begs for rides to the county office only to get told to fill out the forms again. Slaven says she's done that three times already. She showed 11Alive one application, stamped as received by the DFCS office on April 9th.

The state does plan to create a new eligibility system that would hopefully help keep people like Slaven from falling through the cracks, but according to DHS' corrective action plan, it won't be online until December 2015. According to the same report, efforts so far to increase call center capacity have been limited by technology and staffing.

In a written statement to 11Alive, DHS Commissioner Horton said:

The USDA's decision today to release Georgia from an official warning is a testament to the work of our staff, who were agile in implementing new strategies that significantly improved the food stamp application and renewal processes. DHS staff have worked overtime, sacrificing time with their own families, to eliminate the previous backlog so that Georgians could receive the benefits that they need in a timely manner.

We now turn our focus and efforts in making additional adjustments to our service delivery so that Georgia's food stamp program once again exemplifies one of the best models of accuracy, timeliness and customer service in the nation. This includes making the Georgia One call-in line a more convenient access point for eligibility services. We have plans underway to implement new technology supporting the call centers, which should be in place by late fall of this year. While we work toward that goal, we are implementing temporary solutions to improve access using our current resources, such as utilizing an outside vendor to handle general inquiries to the line, which will relieve the burden on our current system, decrease caller hold times and improve access for callers who need to conduct an eligibility interview.

We are grateful for the USDA's support throughout this process and look forward to continued partnership in helping low-income Georgians get the services they need.

In April we asked Governor Nathan Deal, "is that good government?"

Slaven says despite the USDA's decision to cancel its formal warning, the question still stands today.


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