The box of unprocessed applications for state assistance found earlier this month is just the tip of the iceberg, two legal aid attorneys said Wednesday.
Greg Bass of Greater Hartford Legal Aid and Sheldon Toubman of New Haven Legal Assistance both filed class action lawsuits against the state earlier this year for its failure to process food stamp and Medicaid applications in a timely manner.
“I think this controversy highlights that fact that the agency is not complying with federal law,” Bass said. “This situation may point to Hartford, but it’s a statewide problem.“
On Tuesday, Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby told the governor’s chief of staff in a letter that five people in the Hartford regional office were placed on paid administrative leave after unprocessed applications were found.
Bass said his organization hears on a regular basis from individuals who have submitted their applications for food stamps and have not heard back from the department or their case worker about their eligibility.
Because the phone system is still antiquated, clients can’t call to find out if they’ve been approved for benefits and when they go down to one of the 12 regional offices they are often told by the workers there that they can’t find their application, Bass said.
He said the agency is extremely dysfunctional and understaffed. It also doesn’t help that all the applications and the re-determinations of eligibility are still filed on paper. Food stamp applications are supposed to be reviewed within 30 days.
The Department of Social Services is in the midst of an upgrade, but Bass said progress isn’t being made quick enough. He said some of the upgrades are related to a lawsuit his organization filed eight years ago when the agency wasn’t helping disabled individuals receive assistance.
Toubman painted a similar picture of dysfunction at the agency, but warned that it’s a mistake to focus on the box (whether it’s “boxes” is unclear) of unprocessed documents.
“The problems are statewide, and focusing on this one incident ignores the far larger and systemic problem,” Toubman said. “It’s happening statewide, and it’s not because of malfeasance.”
He said he doesn’t understand what difference it makes if the box of applications was under the desk or on top of it.
Toubman is referring to this image Bremby captured as he toured the regional offices searching for a solution to the paperwork problem. Bremby featured the photo in a PowerPoint presentation to all the state’s commissioners back in January.
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 through obsolete phone systems. There are times when paper gets lost and at the beginning and at the end of the month the phone system is “so compromised people inside the agency can’t call out,” Bremby said back in July after clients protested outside DSS headquarters.
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.
As for the box of unprocessed applications, Bremby called the incident “a disturbing situation that warrants strong corrective action.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he was “pretty darn annoyed” at the situation, but believes Bremby is handling it appropriately.
In addition to applications for benefits, which Malloy said dated back to 2009, there were requests for assistance with voter registration.
DSS is one of several state agencies required under the federal Motor Voter law to help people register to vote.
“While we await the outcome of this investigation, I can say that it’s very unfortunate if any eligible voter requested assistance with voter registration and did not receive it,” Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said Wednesday. “This would not be fulfilling their professional mandate under federal law.”
Merrill said her office has had concerns that not all state agencies are complying with their voter registration requirements.
“We routinely do get complaints from people, sometimes about [the Department of Motor Vehicles], not getting a form there or not being informed about it,” she said.
There also are concerns that the Department of Correction hasn’t been informing inmates of their voting rights when they are released, as is required by law, she said.
“It’s very disturbing to think that some very poor people could be disenfranchised by this. That was the whole point of the Motor Voter Act,” she said.
Merrill said it’s possible there could be federal repercussions for not transmitting the paperwork, given that it appears to have violated a federal law. She said her office would work with the Federal Elections Commission or the U.S. Attorney’s Office if they chose to get involved.
Hugh McQuaid contributed to this report.