The antiquated Department of Social Services computer database that is used to determined food stamp eligibility was restored Thursday after being down for two days.
But the situation remains tenuous. DSS Commissioner Roderick Bremby cautioned that the underlying problems are massive and the system, which has been known as EMS since the 1980s, could break down again.
“Our hard-working IT staff were able to resolve the short-term issues this time, but the fact is that our eligibility management system is woefully outmoded and needs to be replaced,” Bremby said in a statement.
The problems with the system are widely known and this week’s issue was related to attempts to create more data space. Officials in the department said creating additional capacity is absolutely necessary to enable this outdated system to last until it can be replaced.
“This reality is widely known, and the agency and our clients are fortunate to have support from the administration, legislature and partner agencies for a replacement system,” Bremby said.
The department is currently in the planning process to build a new eligibility system, which will dovetail with eligibility systems for other social service programs such as Medicaid. The planning process is still ongoing, but once it’s completed the department hopes to be reimbursed by the federal government for about 90 percent of the costs.
Malloy administration Budget Director Ben Barnes said the state is a taking an “innovative” approach to developing a unified eligibility system that will work initially for DSS and the health insurance exchange, but will ultimately provide eligibility tracking for other social service programs offered by other state agencies.
He said the goal is to establish an electronic “no wrong door approach” to social services. So the income and other eligibility guidelines provided to the state can be used in qualifying individuals for other programs the state offers.
Meanwhile, the state faces a class action lawsuit for its inability to process food stamps in a timely manner. The lawsuit filed by Greater Hartford Legal Aid in March
alleges that thousands of needy families have gone hungry because they don’t have prompt access to food stamps.
The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, James Briggs, ended up losing his job of many years in November 2011 when his car broke down and he was unable to afford a new one. Soon afterward, he was diagnosed with colon cancer and after he depleted his savings he applied for state assistance in February. When he applied he gave the state a copy of his birth certificate, drivers license, and a statement about his only income of $75 per week from the Soldiers Sailors and Marines’ Fund. The state requested more information, but he was unable to get through to them on the phone to provide it. He faxed over all the information he had in February. As of March 6, the filing date of the lawsuit, he still had not received a response.
In February 2011, DSS told lawmakers that between January 2010 and December 2011 that between 20 and 40 percent of food stamp applications had been pending for 30-days or longer. The agency’s ability to process the applications has gotten worse, rather than better.
According to the lawsuit, the agency’s timeliness rate was 83.01 percent in 2008, 79.11 percent in 2009, and 59.49 percent in 2010.
Lucy Potter, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit, said part of the problem is the agency’s phone bank system. She said that in order to receive food stamps an individual has to go for an interview, but if they miss the call from the agency it’s unlikely that they’ll even be able to leave a message for the worker because the voicemail system fills up so quickly. There’s never a chance to leave a message or schedule an appointment.
She said the state did approve the hiring of 60 people to process food stamps, but it’s too soon to tell if additional staff will help improve processing time. The employees also have been authorized for a certain amount of overtime.
Meanwhile, the class action lawsuit is in limbo. The state filed a motion to dismiss and attorneys for Greater Hartford Legal Aid have asked for a preliminary injunction. So now it’s just a matter of waiting for the judge to make a ruling on either of those motions.
“It’s not at all clear how it’s going to play,” Potter said Thursday. “But we think we have a pretty good case.”
A spokesman for the Department of Social Services said the state continued to take applications while the database was down and there were no problems created for those who already receive the benefits.
“Individuals and families already eligible for DSS programs as of May 18 remained active in the systems used by medical providers, pharmacies, vendors, and other service providers to check client eligibility,” David Dearborn, a DSS spokesman said. “The department took steps to communicate with providers, vendors, and pharmacies on how to continue to serve clients whose eligibility may not have been verifiable on May 22 and 23.”
Even during the computer system interruption, DSS continued to take new applications from the public, he added.