Christine Stuart photo

(Updated 9:43 a.m.) Advocacy groups and clients rallied outside the Department of Social Services headquarters this morning to “dramatize” the impact of the agency’s inability to approve medical services and food stamps for low-income families in a timely manner.

Debra Allan-Devonroe, a Hartford resident who recently lost her job, said she has been struggling since April to make sure her 6 year old daughter, (pictured above) has health insurance.

She said her first appointment was April 13, but it’s well into July and she had to cancel a July 18 dentist appointment for her daughter because she still doesn’t know yet if she has benefits. She said each visit to the Hartford regional office has been harrowing. At least twice she had an appointment and sat in the waiting room for two hours before having to leave.

Patrick Alexander of Windsor said he’s been on disability since 2010 and is only receiving $16 a month in food stamps and is having difficulty getting health insurance.

“I didn’t ask to be sick,” Alexander, who worked for 16 years at Aetna and 16 years at Hartford Hospital, said.

Sarahi Almonte, a community organizer with the Caring Families Coalition, said they asked for a meeting last year with the agency to offer possible solutions to the logjam, but were denied. She said they were told all the problems and concerns they were expressing were “individual problems.”

However, those individual problems, are a “direct result of their systemic problems,” Almonte said.

“In May 2012 over 70 percent of pending cases at DSS were overdue for action. Symptomatic of the structural problems were lost paperwork, triple requests for the same information, long lines, no responses to telephone inquiries, and various other issues,” the press release from the Caring Families Coalition and Advocacy Unlimited, said.

It won’t be the first time the Social Services Department has come under fire for its management of food stamps and medical benefits. The agency is currently facing two class action lawsuits over the same issues.

A class action filed in U.S. District Court in March alleges thousands of needy families have gone hungry because they don’t have prompt access to food stamp benefits, also known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits.

In January, legal aid attorneys filed a similar lawsuit against the department for failing to process Medicaid applications in a timely manner.

While it may not be comforting to those in need of services today, DSS Commissioner Roderick Bremby said Monday that these are all issues the agency has been working on since he was hired last March.

“We are well into our modernization effort to change the way our customers connect with us,” Bremby said.

Christine Stuart photo

The antiquated and obsolete computerized ‘eligibility management system,’ which is more than 23 years old, is being planned for replacement in 2014—with potential for 90 percent federal funding and applicability across several state human service agencies.

Meanwhile, the agency’s ‘ConneCT’ modernization initiative is underway to upgrade phones, streamline documentation and bring on-line access to benefit accounts, prescreening tools and, eventually, incoming applications.

Currently, there is no electronic document management system, which means the agency handles 5 million pieces of paper, along with 900,000 phone calls per month to obsolete phone systems.  There are times when paper gets lost and at the beginning and the end of the month the phone system is “so compromised people inside the agency can’t call out,” Bremby said.

It’s a system which has been neglected for the past 20 years “where the services are not at the level Connecticut residents deserve,” Bremby said.

The new system will allow those receiving services to get access to their case information online and the phone system will be centralized so an individual receiving services can call a central line and get an answer to their question. Currently the system is regionalized and the clients are assigned case workers in each of the regional offices.

Bremby said the second most frequent call they get is from individuals who want to know if they qualify for services. When the new system is up that’s a question they’ll be able to answer online.

“I want to be very clear we are working to get into mainstream 20th-century efficiency with many of these improvements,” Bremby said.  “Replacement of EMS will move us well into the 21st century.”

But even before the new technology is deployed, Bremby said the agency has been making strides to improve its food stamp error rate, which is monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service bureau.

In February 2011, 26 percent of cases in which food stamps were denied or cut off were the result of errors and fewer than 60 percent of applications were processed in a timely manner.

“Just changing the way we do the work, we went from dead last in the nation last year to the most improved in the negative error rate category,” Bremby said.

That means instead of facing a $800,000 to $1 million sanction, the state only had to pay $300,000, missing the goal by less than half a percentage point.  The state can reinvest half of that amount, and federal officials are suspending the other half, pending next year’s statistics.

Last year, Bremby’s agency was given the green light to hire an additional 120 eligibility workers whose job it is to approve both food stamp and Medicaid applications. Bremby said he’s asked for permission to hire an additional 100 workers to ensure those who have to re-apply for benefits don’t get kicked off unnecessarily even though they may continue to be qualified.

“We’ve heard the complaints and on too many occasions those forms have not been processed and entered into the system, which means those people are removed from the program unnecessarily or erroneously,” Bremby said.

But how does the new an improved system the state will roll out in 2013 help those who need services today?

“The commodity we need is really time,” Bremby said. “We’re trying to correct the neglect of many years.”

He said the agency is not tone deaf to the complaints, but it’s going as fast as it can.

Hugh McQuaid contributed to this report.