On the first day of October, Abigail Egan, Plymouth’s human services director, got 40 phone calls from people who had been dropped from state-administered social service programs.
She’s bracing for the same thing Friday.
Egan and legal aid attorneys worry that many state residents could wrongly lose Medicaid, food stamps and other benefits at the start of November because of what they say appear to be problems at the state Department of Social Services.
They say many people have submitted the information needed to renew their benefits, only to receive notices that their benefits will be terminated. Compounding the frustration, they say, it can take more than an hour to reach a person at the DSS call center to help.
“I’m not sure if DSS realizes how bad it is because they aren’t seeing the panic that this is causing people,” Egan said. “They’re saying, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’re going to take care of it, we’re going to take care of it.’ But if we have no guarantee of it, I’m not comfortable telling people, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”
DSS is in the early months of a new system for processing applications, in which all documents sent to the department are first scanned by a state contractor, then made available to agency workers electronically. In theory, it’s supposed to keep paperwork from getting lost and make it possible for workers in any part of the state to address whatever cases need to be processed.
But initially, backlogs in the scanning process led to significant problems getting applications and renewal forms processed. As a precautionary measure, in late August, DSS officials decided to extend benefits to nearly 16,000 households that were at risk of losing them Sept. 1, to ensure they didn’t lose Medicaid, food stamps or cash assistance while their forms were stuck in the scanning backlog.
DSS said the scanning backlog has been eliminated. But legal aid attorneys say they think DSS has another backlog in the system that could result in thousands of clients losing benefits, despite submitting the required information. They have asked the department to again refrain from cutting off clients’ benefits.
“People who have timely returned their forms — or who have not been able to even request needed accommodations in order to do so — should not be cut off as a result of DSS’s failure to have a working system,” Lucy Potter of Greater Hartford Legal Aid and Joanne Gibau of New Haven Legal Assistance wrote in a letter to Assistant Attorney General Hugh Barber, who represents DSS in litigation.
The letter acknowledged that “some clients are currently receiving incorrect warning notices that their benefits are terminating when in fact they are not.”
The department’s eligibility management system, which automatically generates the termination notices, is separate from the computer system that workers use to manage documents, the letter said, and doesn’t know if the department has received a person’s paperwork until a worker enters information into that system.
“In the event that a client is inadvertently closed when their documents were in fact timely submitted then we will ensure that they retroactively receive any benefits that were improperly denied,” the letter said.
Asked how many people were slated to have their benefits cut off at the start of November, DSS spokesman David Dearborn did not provide a figure, but said that every month there are clients whose benefits are terminated, including those who are no longer eligible or who haven’t returned their renewal forms. DSS serves about 750,000 people.
“As in any given month, there are going to be discontinuances that will need to be restored retroactively, just as many discontinuances are appropriate,” he said. “We are still working on the numbers, but indications at this point are that the great majority of discontinuances done so far are closed appropriately (i.e., lack of documentation submitted); we are still working on the remainder of the cases; i.e., working documents in the system.”
Because the state rolls out benefits over the first three days of the month, many people whose renewals weren’t granted until Thursday or Friday won’t see a stop in benefits, Dearborn said.
At the end of August, when DSS decided to extend benefits, the scanning backlog left workers unable to determine whether clients sent in forms, Dearborn said. He contrasted that with the situation now, when paperwork is in the department’s computer system and workers can find documents clients sent in.
Dearborn said the department typically gets a surge of paperwork from clients after mailing out the first notice warning that benefits will be discontinued, which “means that it is challenging to get through it all before the first of the month. Consequently, a termination notice may go out.”
Potter said clients who get the notices are left in a tough situation.
“It’s just really difficult for the client who can’t tell whether or not they’re going to get cut off,” she said.
In some towns, Potter and Gibau wrote, social service staff have said the time they were spending “trying to track down lost DSS cases” was diverting them from other work.
Egan said she’s been hearing daily from people who have received letters warning that they will lose their benefits. Often, she said, people, particularly seniors, who are responsible about sending their forms in on time get a notice saying they didn’t submit the needed information and will be dropped. They initially figure that since they submitted the paperwork, they don’t need to worry about it. But then they get another notice warning that they will lose their benefits.
“They panic, as anybody would,” said Egan, who is also Plymouth’s municipal agent for the elderly.
If people have already had their benefits cut off, Egan said, they can typically get them restored by going to a DSS office in person. But she said it’s a challenge for people in Plymouth, where the nearest offices are in Torrington or Waterbury.
“It’s hard for me to tell someone who’s got very low income that they have to put gas in their car to go drive to DSS because that’s the only way that they’re going to get their food stamps back,” she said.
In the past, when there were particular DSS workers responsible for certain cases or programs, it was easier to solve problems by contacting the worker or the person responsible for the program, Egan said.
Now cases are not assigned to specific workers, and calls are all supposed to go to the department’s call center. Egan said it can take two hours to reach a worker that way. But she said that those who stick it out have had good experiences once they reached a worker, an improvement over the past, when often workers’ voicemails would be full and it could be difficult to reach anyone at the agency.