Connecticut residents who may not have qualified for food stamps or Medicaid received benefits in September, Department of Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby wrote Monday in a letter to legal aid attorneys.

In the letter, Bremby explained that the department decided to extend benefits to everyone who received them in August when the new scanning vendor, Scan Optics, fell behind because of an “unanticipated volume of mail.”

Scan Optics was hired to help the state transition from paper to an electronic format as part of the department’s modernization effort. Once scanned, the applications are added to a digital database so that DSS workers at the call centers can pull up the information when a client calls.

In the past, clients were assigned specific caseworkers, and only that casework had access to the client’s paper application. The chance that someone would lose 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.

Because of complications with the new system at the end of August, Bremby decided to extend benefits to everyone who was receiving them for another month while they worked out the kinks in the new system.

“Subsequent reviews of this action indicate that while many clients were properly extended and had no changes in circumstances, many others received benefits that they were not eligible for because they had not timely submitted required documentation or completed the redetermination process,” Bremby wrote. “Every month, thousands of clients have benefits end because they are no longer eligible or because they fail to comply with program requirements.”

Christine Stuart file photo
DSS Commissioner Roderick Bremby (Christine Stuart file photo)

The result was that benefits were “improperly extended.” The amount of benefits that went out to ineligible clients in September was not immediately available, according to state officials.

But Bremby defended the decision. “The decision to unilaterally extend benefits at the end of August, which we continue to believe was the best course of action under the circumstances, was based on an extraordinary situation that has since been fully resolved,” he wrote.

Three legal aid attorneys wrote Bremby earlier this month because they learned some of their clients who were qualified to receive benefits were dropped off their food stamps or Medicaid benefits at the end of October. All of those clients had timely submitted the paperwork to DSS to process their continuation of benefits.

However, part of the problem was that DSS had no way to prioritize those notices in a timely manner to prevent eligible individuals from losing their benefits when they had done everything they were asked to do.

But that all changed on Monday.

“Redetermination documents now have a dedicated ‘queue’ where workers can access those documents to be processed more efficiently within the usual monthly work cycle,” Bremby wrote.

Kristen Noelle Hatcher, managing attorney of the benefits unit at Connecticut Legal Services, said she’s pleased to learn of a new functionality.

“We share DSS’ expectation this new system will be a ‘change for the better’,” Hatcher said. “It is critically important that DSS be able to process timely-submitted redetermination forms before the end of the eligibility period to ensure that benefits are not abruptly terminated to eligible recipients and that medically necessary services are not denied.”

Legal aid attorneys shared stories of clients unable to get their medications and those who went without money for food for at least a week before benefits were restored after two-hour phone conversations.

Hatcher said she hopes the new system also will help reduce the number of inaccurate warning notices that go out to clients who have already submitted their paperwork to the department.

“Such notices have created anxiety and put unnecessary strain on DSS’ operations,” Hatcher said.

Bremby said he believed the new system would minimize those notices, but warned that with all new technology and business processes, “it will likely take some time.”

Legal aid attorneys said they probably won’t know until January if the system is working properly because their clients usually contact them around the middle of the month.