In Need of Assistance
The state is implementing new ideas to process social services applications but there are still lags
On March 26, The Baltimore Sun ran a story about the unveiling by the state Department of Human Resources (DHR) of new electronic-application stations at the Baltimore City Department of Social Services' Hilton Heights Family Investment Center in West Baltimore. The story's headline was "Social Safety Net to be Quicker by June," and it reported that 10 new computers have been set up at Hilton Heights that people can use to apply for public-assistance programs such as food stamps, disability, or medical assistance.
The technological advancement, according to the state, streamlines that office's assistance application process--as City Paper reported last year ("Net Loss," Feature, Nov. 4, 2009) many social services recipients in Maryland waited hours (sometimes all day) to meet with a caseworker and fill out paper applications. Worse, many people who applied were finding that the state--which has been struggling to keep up with the surge in applications for assistance--was not processing its paperwork in a timely fashion. Per federal law, states are supposed to process applications for food stamps, medical assistance, temporary disability, and other programs within 30 days; in Maryland many applicants found that their applications were not being processed for months.
The improved technology at the Hilton Heights office is part of a multi-approach state effort to improve its response time. Late last year, Baltimore County was processing only 65.5 percent of food-stamp applications on time. Now applicants no longer have to visit local social services offices to be interviewed by a caseworker--they can now complete their interviews over the phone. In addition, people waiting for reauthorization for food stamps can do so in group "redetermination" meetings with caseworkers, who used to meet with clients in time-consuming individual meetings.
"We also have trained some of our partners here in the county to help people do applications online," says Maureen Robinson, spokeswoman for the Baltimore County Department of Social Services. "The Department of Aging, we've trained a lot of their senior center people as well as the Department of Health, so we're really spreading out and trying to make these applications far more accessible."
These changes, and others, are being made in keeping with a December 2009 court order requiring the Department of Human Resources to improve the timeliness of its applications processing--by December 2010, 96 percent of all applications for assistance received by the state must be processed within 30 days. The decision was issued in response to a lawsuit brought against the state by the Homeless Persons Representation Project, the Public Justice Center, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, and two social services applicants, Myracle Thompson and Earline Augustus-El, who claimed that the state had delayed in processing their requests for assistance.
In February, the state submitted a plan for compliance to the court that listed a number of measures--including an increased use of technology such as computers and telephones, simplification of application procedures, and improved staffing at various social services offices--that are supposed to help it meet the court-ordered goal. According to Brenda Donald, secretary for the state Department of Human Resources, the state hopes to have many of these technology upgrades in place by summer.
"We have some major technology enhancements as part of our longer-range strategy," Donald says, "but we also have some shorter-term tech fixes that are going to come online in June that will help us with streamlined processing. So we believe that we're going to be in a really good place by June, and certainly by July, but we are tracking the numbers on a daily basis."
As these efficiency measures have been put in place over the past several months, however, the state's compliance rate has decreased rather than increased. According to reports filed with Maryland Statestat, which tracks the performance of state agencies, Baltimore County's ability to process the number of food-stamps applications it receives each month within 30 days has decreased from 70.6 percent in October 2009 to 58.2 percent in January 2010. Likewise, Howard County processed 52.5 percent of its food-stamp applications in a timely fashion in October 2009; as of January 2010, that number had dropped to 44.5 percent. Overall, the state went from processing 84.2 percent of its food-stamps applications on time in October 2009 to processing just 77.4 percent in January.
Carolyn Johnson, managing attorney for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, one of the plaintiffs in the suit against DHR, says she's concerned to see the compliance rates drop so dramatically. She says that the plaintiffs in the suit against the state did not feel that the compliance plan issued by DHR was adequate. On March 3, the plaintiffs filed a response to the plan that called it a "reformatted presentation of previously identified initiatives that have not yielded measurable improvements in timely processing" and criticized the fact that many of the improvements the state proposes will not be made until mid-2010 or later.
"In light of the fact that the defendant's most recent data shows that the defendant's compliance rates for the programs at issue have decreased since this court's order, particularly food stamp-application compliance," the plaintiff's response says, "plaintiffs find the need for a comprehensive and substantive plan all the more essential." The response expresses concern that it will not be possible for the agency to meet the court's deadline of December 2010.
"What we were hoping to see is an overall statewide plan of action," says Johnson, who says DHR needs to consider a more extensive overhaul of its current systems. "Look at what's working and then duplicate that. If this initiative in Hilton Heights works, for instance, then is it something that's unique to Hilton Heights or is it something that can be replicated in, say, the Towson office? DHR needs to be pro-active in that regard."
On March 22, the DHR responded to the plaintiff's March 3 critique, indicating that the initiatives it is taking to improve its ability to handle the demand for social services "are being undertaken with an eye toward long-term improvements in compliance" and that "wherever possible, the department will prioritize systems modifications and enhancements that will help local departments meet timeliness requirements."
DHR's Donald says she thinks some of the disagreement about what will work and what won't amounts to "a lack of understanding of what it takes to manage these programs." Donald says that one of the first things DHR did to comply with the December court order was to tackle a backlog of old cases and applications that workers had not been able to keep up with; she says that in Baltimore County alone there were 7,775 social services cases that were languishing as of December 2009. Over the past few months, the department has filled all of its vacant staff positions and hired temporary personnel to work those cases. Addressing the older cases makes it appear as if the compliance rate is dropping--in reality, she says, the number of old cases are skewing the rate, but the state is now almost caught up.
"We are now down to under 200 [old cases] in Baltimore County, and we track that on a weekly basis and report that to the governor," Donald says. "We expect those cases to be completely cleared, and then we are only focusing on the incoming cases, and our data show that we are managing the incoming cases much more quickly, we only have a few that fall into backlog. So what we need is probably about a month after we have cleared the backlog to look at the compliance rates that reflect more accurately the work that is being done now."
Donald says she's familiar with the plaintiffs' criticisms about her agency's compliance plan. "We thoroughly vetted their ideas," she says. "Some of them didn't make any sense in terms of our structure and our ability to absorb them, and some of them we were already doing."
Donald says that DHR will certainly "drive toward that goalpost" of meeting the court's deadline, but as she indicated when the court injunction was first handed down, it's going to be a struggle. In April 2009, the state was handling 427,599 food stamps applications; in January 2010, it handled 541,413. Resources continue to be tight, "and the compounding issue is the surge of new cases continuing to come in and the staffing issues--those are things that cannot be overcome. Other than that, we believe we have a really strong comprehensive plan, and we're open to other strategies that are doable."
Homeless Persons Representation Project's Johnson says she and her colleagues have no wish to be unreasonable, and she recognizes that DHR has no choice but to live within its budget constraints. The plaintiffs had hoped, however, for a more dramatic response from the state. "We were hopeful that perhaps a permanent injunction would be helpful in getting the agency the resources to fix the problem," she says.
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