CTNJ file photo
Protest last summer outside the DSS offices in Hartford (CTNJ file photo)

A federal judge issued a permanent injunction against the Department of Social Services this week ordering it to comply with federal guidelines for processing food stamp applications within 30 days.

In the injunction, U.S. District Court Judge Vanessa Bryant told the department to “process applications for, and provide, food stamps in a timely manner, as required by the FSA [Food Stamp Act].” She said the state admitted that “there are systemic deficiencies in the manner in which it processes food stamps, including without limitation routine loss of applications, loss of verification documentation, and the failure to timely schedule interviews.”

Under the Food Stamp Act the state is required to process applications within 30 days, but in many cases has exceeded that time period. That prompted Greater Hartford Legal Aid and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice to file a class action lawsuit against the state last March.

According to information provided to the court, between January 2010 and February 2012, the percent of applications pending over 30 days has ranged from 18 percent in August 2011 and May 2011 to 40 percent in November 2011. In addition, the percentage of all decisions made a month late ranged from 20.5 percent in July 2011 to as many as 32 percent in December 2011.

Between August 2010 and February 2012, the percentage of expedited applications pending and overdue at the end of the month ranged from 95 percent for December 2011 to 72 percent in June 2011.

“We are very pleased that Judge Bryant took strong action to ensure that eligible Connecticut residents will be able to get basic nutrition and sustenance in a timely way,” Lucy Potter, a Greater Hartford Legal Aid attorney, said Tuesday in a press release.

In Bryant’s preliminary injunction issued in December, she said “the low levels of timeliness rates are persuasive evidence that the state has failed to timely provide food stamps in compliance with the unambiguous mandates.”

In her permanent injunction issued Monday, Bryant said the state shall report to attorneys at Greater Hartford Legal Aid “the reason for the failure to timely determine eligibility of each applicant,” if it fails to issue the food stamps on time. By the end of August, Bryant wants the state process 70 percent of all food stamp applications in the 30-day window. By the end of October that number will go up to 80 percent, and by the end of December Bryant expects it to reach 90 percent compliance.

By next year, Bryant expects the percentage of applications pending more than 30 days shall not exceed 10 percent of all applications and wants those numbers to be sustained for six consecutive months.

At the moment there are nearly 400,000 Connecticut residents in over 214,000 households receiving food stamp benefits, according to the Department of Social Services. 

“We’re working hard on a number of fronts to improve timeliness of application processing,” David Dearborn, a spokesman for the department, said Tuesday.

Lawyers for the department are still reviewing Bryant’s decision, but Dearborn said it has hired more than 200 new staff members to implement technological improvements that will allow for faster processing of applications for both food stamps and Medicaid benefits.

The state is currently piloting a document imaging service in the Waterbury area and will be expanding it statewide. The document imaging will replace the piles of paperwork and speed up the process while ensuring accuracy, Dearborn said.

Applications for Medicaid benefits also have suffered under the state’s antiquated technology system. A similar case regarding the processing of those applications is being heard today in U.S. District Court in Hartford by Judge Alvin Thompson.