Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Trail of TIERS continues

Food stamp applications piling up under state's new system

AUSTIN — Texas is dealing with a backlog of applications for welfare programs, including food stamps, because not enough workers know how to process cases in the state's new social services computer system, officials said.

More than 14 percent of food stamp applications were processed late in October, the most recent month with available statistics. The number of applications processed on time that month was the lowest since January.

"There is very clearly a TIERS workload issue," said Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Commission. "We're trying to staff up. We do think that with additional staff ... we'll get through this hump."

The Legislature approved the Texas Integrated Eligibility Redesign System program in 1999 to replace a system implemented in the 1970s. It's supposed to improve access to state benefits by reducing operating and maintenance costs and improving the accuracy and timeliness of eligibility and benefit decisions.

Recent delays were most pronounced in the Central Texas region, the test region for the new system. A third of the more than 25,400 Austin-area food stamp applications in October were not processed within the 30 days required by the federal government.

Meanwhile, the state continues to add cases to TIERS. State Auditor John Keel released a report last month saying TIERS wasn't ready for more cases.

Katie Romich of the Texas State Employees Union said workers are frustrated.

"Every day, more and more cases are being put into TIERS ... without an infrastructure to deal with those cases," she said.

Demetria Johnson, an Austin mother of two, said she's still waiting for food stamps after applying to renew in June.

"I do get paid weekly, but it's still hard for me to buy groceries," she said. "I fall off on the other bills."

Goodman didn't know exactly how many people were waiting for welfare benefits.

She said the backlogs have been exacerbated by the addition in January of the Texas Women's Health Program, which provides gynecological exams and birth control to 70,000 low-income women.

The state is using TIERS to process applications for the program, and also for members of participants' households who are seeking food stamps, Medicaid or temporary family assistance.

"The thing that has been somewhat of a surprise is how many of those women and their families have applied for other services," Goodman said.

The addition of 50,000 foster care cases to TIERS also had an impact, Goodman said.

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, said that until TIERS is working smoothly, "we don't need to be integrating anything into it."

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