Screengrab of DSS website

The Department of Social Services’ new modern phone and computer system was supposed to make sure that some of its 750,000 clients didn’t mistakenly lose their benefits, but legal aid attorneys say it’s happening again.

Three legal aid attorneys wrote a letter last week to Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby to tell him about what’s been happening to their clients since the end of October.

One of their clients, West Haven resident Polly Santini, completed the paperwork necessary to continue receiving food stamps on Oct. 10. But that didn’t prevent her from losing her benefits on Nov. 1.

Santini and her family were without funds for food for more than a week. She was reinstated to the program after waiting two hours on the phone to speak with a live person. The caseworker restored her benefits after interviewing her over the phone.

Then there’s Pamela Brown, of Branford, who filled out the paperwork for the continuance of her family’s Medicaid coverage. When she learned she was kicked out of the program despite turning in the paperwork, she did not fill a prescription for a thyroid condition.

“As a result, she became symptomatic, with weakness and inability to focus,” according to legal aid attorneys. “In November, as her symptoms worsened, Ms. Brown went to the pharmacy and was told she was still not on Medicaid and had to pay $52 out of pocket to get the prescription filled. As she was desperate, she paid this money and got the prescription, leaving her very short with money for food and other necessities.”

Sheldon Toubman, an attorney with New Haven Legal Assistance Association — one of the three attorneys to send a letter Bremby describing the situation — said these stories were similar to countless others who meet the guidelines for continuing to receive assistance from the state.

Asked about how many others may be in the same position, the Department of Social Services said it doesn’t know.

“Because there are various reasons that clients’ benefits may be discontinued on any given month, it’s difficult to get a number that gives insight into the overall situation,” David Dearborn, a spokesman for the department, said Monday.

For example, some clients who get their paperwork to the agency on time turn out to be ineligible going forward, Dearborn said. Others do get their paperwork in, but too near the end of the month and there’s not enough time to do the redetermination by the first of the next month.

Toubman, who is suing the state agency for not providing Medicaid benefits in a timely manner, said that’s not good enough.

The new system that eliminated the paper application process was supposed to resolve these problems. But it has been in operation for four months now and the problems are not getting any better, Toubman said.

“Clearly, it has not solved the problem, and is not going to,” Toubman said. “Rather, DSS has to adequately staff the agency to address the need, something that it refuses to do — or which it cannot get permission from OPM [the Office of Policy and Management] to do.”

That’s also the crux of Toubman’s argument in a class action lawsuit he filed against the agency last year. In that lawsuit, which is still pending in U.S. District Court, Toubman argues that there aren’t enough employees at the state agency to process Medicaid applications in a timely fashion regardless of the modernization efforts.

There also doesn’t seem to be a way to prioritize the cases in the system, legal aid attorneys said in their letter to Bremby, so those in danger of losing their benefits when they are qualified to stay on them sometimes lose them anyway.

Under the new modern system called ConneCT all the applications and redeterminations get sent to a company in Manchester that scans them. The applications are then added to a digital database so DSS workers at the call centers can pull up the information when a client calls.

In the past, clients were assigned specific caseworkers who were the only ones with access to the paper application the client submitted. The chances that someone lost their benefits — because their caseworker misplaced their paperwork or because that caseworker was away from the office — was much higher before the new system was implemented four months ago, according to state officials.

But legal aid attorney’s disagree.

“There are not enough workers to keep up with all the tasks,” Toubman said. “Every month, at the end of the month, thousands of vulnerable low income people who still are eligible for benefits and who timely submitted all required paperwork are nevertheless cut off of benefits through a written notice declaring (falsely) that they failed to complete their redeterminations.”

To add insult to injury, the wait times on the phone to try and resolve the situation are between one to two hours, he said.

“The result is eligible people routinely being cut off of essential benefits with no realistic recourse,” Toubman said. “This situation has dragged on long enough — and modernization has not only not fixed it but made it worse — so legal services has to take action.”

The last snapshot of data Dearborn said he saw indicated that a majority of the discontinuances were being done appropriately by the agency.

“Our staff has been working extremely hard to get to all of the redeterminations as quickly as we can,” Dearborn said.