HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - While a fraud scandal cast a cloud over a special emergency food aid program following Hurricane Irene, the state is working to address deeper troubles that have plagued the traditional food stamps program, including high error rates, slow response times and an antiquated computer system.
Connecticut is ranked last among all the states and territories for processing applications for the federal program in a timely manner. In 2006, the state was processing 81 percent of applications on a timely basis. But that dropped to 59 percent in 2010 and the head of the Connecticut Department of Social Services said the current rate is even worse.
The federal government has also warned the state that it could face sanctions, likely financial, if it doesn't improve its error rates, such as providing too much or too little in aid to recipients or unduly denying applicants. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is a $650 million-a-year program in Connecticut.
DSS Commissioner Roderick Bremby was appointed by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last March, in part because of his past efforts modernizing state government while the former cabinet secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Bremby has spent the past year examining the Connecticut agency's challenges. They include a computerized eligibility system that dates back to 1988 and an organization that relies on recipients having to physically visit fewer regional welfare offices to apply for benefits and submit paperwork that often gets lost.
"I like to say we're in the second decade of the 21st century, using 20th-century technology and 40-year-old work processes," he told The Associated Press in an interview last week at DSS headquarters, housed in a former Hartford office building.
"It's not a pleasant system to work in. Our staff are incredibly frustrated because they know that they're limited by what they can do," Bremby said. "And the volume is just incredible — 3.7 million pieces of paper a month is what we process."
It comes at a time when there's a growing demand for the monthly federal food benefits. There were about 100,000 monthly cases in 2007, a figure that grew to more than 210,000 in 2011. Meanwhile, the number of state DSS eligibility workers charged with processing those applications has dropped from 800 in 2002 to more than 500 today.
Since his hiring, Bremby has embarked on a systematic approach to fixing and modernizing DSS. He said that just focusing on payment error rates, where Connecticut is showing some improvement, or timeliness issues won't solve the overall problem at the agency.
He recently finalized a $32.4 million contract with Deloitte Consulting Services, first started during former Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell's administration, to overhaul the agency's computer and antiquated phone systems to eventually allow recipients to apply over the phone or online for benefits, check on their applications, make changes or renew their applications. A portion of the contract will be reimbursed by the federal government.
He also appointed one person to oversee SNAP, something that hasn't happened in about a decade, and is filling 134 new positions at DSS in the coming weeks, mostly eligibility workers for SNAP and Medicaid.
Over the past six to eight months, Bremby said he has also made programmatic improvements, developing quality teams and holding monthly error review meetings. His deputy commissioner now meets with the regional DSS offices to see how their error rates are coming along. Given these changes, as well as plans to eventually overhaul the 22-year-old eligibility management system, Bremby said he hopes federal officials will recognize the efforts Connecticut has made to improve how it manages SNAP and begin reducing its error rates.
While the emergency food program, known as D-SNAP, is a separate program that assisted different people, Bremby acknowledges the improvements being made to the agency could have helped when DSS was handing out the benefits for D-SNAP to 24,000 residents.
They were initially found eligible for $200 to $1,200, based on information they reported to the state. But in reviewing the cases of more than 800 state employees who received the payments, DSS referred at least 98 applications to the state Office of Labor Relations and the workers' respective agencies possible action. As of last month, four states employees had been fired for providing false information in order to obtain the assistance. DSS is now reviewing applications submitted by the public for possible fraud.
Republicans have criticized DSS's handling of the program and an attorney for several accused state employees has said that DSS employees changed workers' applications.
"Many people are legitimately in need, but it appears from reports that many others took advantage of the situation," said state Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, shortly after the storm. "Some claimed, for instance, that they lost hundreds
of pounds of meat, and received hundreds of dollars in compensation without providing proof. This is taxpayer money and must not be wasted.
"My question is: How can we handle this better?" asked Markley. "There's no unified system, no single set of criteria for the many aid programs. Mismanagement and the cynicism it breeds most harm those who really need help."
While the federal government set the rules of the emergency food stamp program, Bremby said that if the state had better technology and allowed DSS staff to access its system remotely, the agency could have held application centers at remote sites such as school gymnasiums. Instead, they were forced to use the DSS offices, where thousands lined up and waited hours to apply for benefits.
But Bremby contends that his workers, who are trying to improve the overall system, have been unfairly criticized.
"We have a group of hardworking staff who are asked to go above and beyond their day-to-day responsibilities to process over 20,000 applications, new applications, in the course of a week," he said. "And to be subjected to derision, questions about their integrity, their capability, that's the frustrating part."
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