This is a photo of DSS Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby and George Chamberlin, who runs the benefits centers
DSS Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby, left Arielle Levin Becker / The CT Mirror
This is a photo of DSS Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby and George Chamberlin, who runs the benefits centers
DSS Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby Arielle Levin Becker / The CT Mirror

Connecticut could lose up to $3.7 million in expected federal funding because of continued problems in handling food stamp cases.

In issuing a warning to the state Department of Social Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service cited a backlog of 4,135 overdue renewals and 12,939 overdue documents used to make changes in clients’ accounts or benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

DSS could avoid the financial penalty — a suspension of up to $3.7 million in federal funds used to administer the program — if it submits a corrective action plan outlining efforts to eliminate the backlog, if federal officials consider the plan acceptable, and if the department meets the plan’s objectives, according to the letter from Kurt Messner, the federal agency’s acting regional administrator.

In response, Social Services Commissioner Roderick L. Bremby wrote that the department would submit a corrective action plan, and said the backlog had been reduced to 331 overdue renewal forms.

DSS’ handling of the food stamp program has drawn unfavorable attention from the federal government for several years. In 2011, federal officials reported that the state wrongly denied SNAP benefits to eligible residents at the highest rate of any state in the country, and was among the worst in processing applications on time and paying accurate levels of benefits.

The following year, U.S. District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant, who presided over a case that centered on delays in processing SNAP applications, wrote that there was evidence of an “ongoing, persistent systemic failure” to comply with federal law in administering the program.

More than 230,000 households in Connecticut receive SNAP benefits.

In their correspondence this month, both Messner and Bremby cited improvements in DSS’ handling of the program. Bremby noted that there were no overdue SNAP applications in the department’s new computer system, and said the department had exceeded federal expectations in the percentage of SNAP applications it processed within the required timeframe.

But he acknowledged that the department had been unable to meet all the goals the federal agency had set for the state earlier this year, citing problems identifying SNAP renewal documents in the department’s new computer system so they could be prioritized. He said the department has since refined its ability to identify items that are likely to be SNAP renewal documents, allowing it to process those forms more efficiently.

Messner wrote that despite progress in several areas, the continued backlog in renewals and change forms remained a problem.

“We recognize the system challenges DSS has faced in meeting the benchmarks and the meaningful gains made in resolving the SNAP backlogs,” he wrote. “We appreciate DSS’ efforts to work toward a more efficient program administration that ensures SNAP access for eligible applicants and current clients in need of food assistance.”

Messner added that based on DSS’ progress to date, the federal agency was hopeful DSS “will be able to avoid the suspension of federal funds.”

DSS has also faced scrutiny for its handling of other programs, including a federal class action lawsuit alleging that it did not have enough eligibility workers to process Medicaid applications in the time required by federal law. That case settled earlier this year.

But advocates remain concerned about DSS’ staffing levels, particularly after the announcement last week that the department would have to cut $2 million from its personnel budget. Bremby said last week that the department had some vacancies in eligibility positions, but “we also anticipate being able to refill those where they’re really necessary.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the SNAP lawsuit resulted in a settlement. Judge Bryant issued a preliminary injunction, which is now under appeal.

Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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