Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Austin American Statesman: The Problems with Texas Welfare begin to Hit the Fan

Ricardo B. Brazziell

Sandra Vinson struggled with the new food stamp system for more than six weeks before getting re-enrolled on Thursday.

Told ya. It will get much worse.

Food stamp backlog affects 6,000 Central Texans
Applications for food stamps sharply decline in Travis County
By Corrie MacLaggan


Monday, March 06, 2006

South Austin resident Sandra Vinson, 61, applied to renew her food stamps on Jan. 13. More than six weeks later, she still didn't have them.

Vinson dipped into her rent money to buy groceries before she was finally re-enrolled in the food stamp program late Thursday.

Ricardo B. Brazziell

(enlarge photo)
Sandra Vinson struggled with the new food stamp system for more than six weeks before getting re-enrolled on Thursday.

The applications of about 6,000 Central Texans requesting food stamps, Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are stuck in a backlog, state officials say.

That backlog started in January, just before the state began rolling out a new call-in system for Texans to apply for public assistance. It also coincides with a sudden drop in food stamp enrollment in Travis County that might be related to the new system.

Some of the 2,900 state workers who found out they would not have a job in the new system quit, leaving state offices short-staffed and creating the backlog, officials said.

The new, nearly $1 billion system, which officials predict will save the state $646 million over five years, involves closing some of the offices where Texans apply for public assistance and replacing them with call centers managed by a private company.

State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, said the state should stop the rollout of the new system until problems are resolved. The rollout began in Travis and Hays counties and is expected to expand to more than 20 Hill Country counties in April.

"It would appear that we're playing Russian roulette with tens of thousands of people who need assistance from the state," Naishtat said.

Vinson said she doesn't like having to depend on food stamps but said it is the only way she can make ends meet. Numerous calls to state offices and the new call centers netted conflicting information on her case, she said.

"The system is circuitous, it's evasive and it's downright spooky that the information is lost," she said. "I was just about in tears after this lengthy go-round."

Half of the 6,000 backlogged applications should be processed by today, said Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the state Health and Human Services Commission.

The backlog is the result of the state's transition to the new call-insystem and not the system itself. But other issues have arisen that could be directly related to the new system.

About 6,000 children were dropped from the Children's Health Insurance Program last month because their families weren't told about a new enrollment fee. State officials reinstated the families and said the problems stemmed from mistakes at a new call center in Midland.

In addition, there were about 160,000 Travis County residents enrolled in the food stamp program in December, but only 84,000 in March — a nearly 50 percent drop. Statewide, food stamp enrollment fell about 10 percent in the same period.

State officials attribute some of the decline to evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita no longer qualifying for assistance, but that cannot explain the huge dropoff in Travis County, said Celia Hagert, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an advocate for low- and middle-income Texans. She suspects the drop may be related to the new eligibility system.

"It's understandable that there would be transition problems, but we have to have a contingency plan in place to ensure that people's lives are not disrupted and damaged," Hagert said.

cmaclaggan@statesman.com; 445-3548