Unacceptable. That's the word Governor Nathan Deal used to refer to the state's handling of food stamp applications, amid threats from the federal government to suspend or withhold nearly $76 million.
For months, reporter Rebecca Lindstrom has exposed problems with the state's new phone system, Georgia One, to process food stamp applications, as well as Medicaid and other family support benefits.
Families have waited up to three hours for mandatory eligibility interviews, only to have their call dropped, if they're even able to get on hold in the first place.
On Wednesday, a USDA audit said during its investigation, it made 81 calls to the centralized intake number. Of those, only four were ever answered by an agent.
That's why the USDA says DFCS must allow families to go to their county office to have their eligibility interview if they prefer. Just last month, DFCS told 11Alive that was an option.
"We answer thousands of calls every day but the percentage of folks that are not able to get through, we have to have a plan for them, and we do. They are able to go to the county office," said Communications Director Susan Boatwright.
But when Lindstrom visited county offices, clients were still being turned away, told to call the phone system instead.
According to the audit, federal investigators also put the promise to the test. They visited seven metro Atlanta offices and were told at each one, they would have to conduct their interview by phone.
Families have told 11Alive for months they've been contacting the Governor's office for help. But on Wednesday, his office said he was not aware of the severity of the problem until mid-February.
In a written statement to 11Alive Governor Nathan Deal said, "I agree with the USDA's assessment that the current situation regarding administration of nutrition assistance in Georgia is unacceptable. Commissioner Horton is keeping me abreast of efforts to improve customer service within the Department of Human Services. Our first priority is to make sure those Georgians who have been waiting too long for service receive immediate attention. DHS employees are working overtime to make sure those who have applied for federal aid receive an eligibility determination as soon as possible.
, and I have full faith that we'll correct the issues raised by the federal government as quickly as possible."
The USDA says in all, its yearly audit found 34 regulatory deficiencies, 12 of them unresolved issues that were at least a year old.