Food banks de­cry costly new sys­tem for food stamps

Dayton Daily News - - LOCAL & STATE - By An­drew J. To­bias

A costly CLEVE­LAND — new state sys­tem, meant to stream­line the food­stamp ap­pli­ca­tion process, is draw­ing harsh crit­i­cism from Ohio’s food banks, who say it’s mak­ing it harder for needy peo­ple to get food as­sis­tance.

Af­ter pre­vi­ously test­ing it in a five-county pilot, the state in Au­gust di­verted all food-stamp ap­pli­ca­tions through the new on­line plat­form, the Ohio Ben­e­fits Sys­tem. The sys­tem, es­ti­mated to cost the state and fed­eral govern­ment $539 mil­lion by the time it’s fin­ished, first launched in 2014, when the state set it up to process Med­i­caid ap­pli­ca­tions.

Lisa Ham­ler Fugitt, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the pro­fes­sional as­so­ci­a­tion that rep­re­sents Ohio’s food banks, said she’s heard anec­dotes from mem­bers across the state about prob­lems with the new sys­tem.

Those prob­lems have in­cluded no­tices for manda­tory ap­pli­cant in­ter­views be­ing sent to the wrong ad­dress, or peo­ple try­ing to call in for a re­quired phone in­ter­view, only to wait on hold for an hour or two be­fore giv­ing up. This has led peo­ple to be im­prop­erly de­nied food stamps, some of whom didn’t find out un­til they tried to check out at the gro­cery store line, she said.

“I’m com­pletely in a state of shock on the cost alone of the sys­tem,” she said. “... But this sys­tem’s been out there since 2014. This is 2019. And for $539 mil­lion, you’d think we would have got­ten it right.”

Of­fi­cials say tran­si­tion go­ing well de­spite headaches

State of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge the tran­si­tion has caused headaches, but said the big­gest prob­lems have been a re­sult of mis­takes by county case­work­ers, rather than the sys­tem it­self. County job and fam­ily ser­vices de­part­ments have fo­cused on train­ing work­ers to be­come more fa­mil­iar with the new sys­tem, of­fi­cials said.

“Through­out Fe­bru­ary, we are pro­vid­ing tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance to county agen­cies to en­sure that ap­pli­ca­tions sub­mit­ted on­line are be­ing pro­cessed prop­erly and in ac­cor­dance with pol­icy,” said Brett Crow, a spokesman for the Ohio Depart­ment of Job and Fam­ily Ser­vices.

Joel Potts, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Ohio Job and Fam­ily Ser­vices Di­rec­tors’ As­so­ci­a­tion, said the new sys­tem is work­ing about as well as can be ex­pected.

“I would say we’re very pleased in the di­rec­tion we’re go­ing, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Potts said.

The Sup­ple­men­tal Nu­tri­tional As­sis­tance Pro­gram, more com­monly re­ferred to as food stamps, is a fed­er­ally funded pro­gram that pro­vides food for the poor. El­i­gi­bil­ity for the pro­gram is 130 per­cent of the fed­eral poverty level, or $32,640 an­nu­ally for a fam­ily of four. In­stead of the old-fash­ioned stamps, re­cip­i­ents now re­ceive a debit card, loaded monthly, that can be used to buy ap­proved food prod­ucts at stores.

Food-stamp re­cip­i­ents also are re­quired to work a cer­tain num­ber of hours a week, at­tend classes or other “work-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties.” How­ever, Ohio in Oc­to­ber loos­ened work re­quire­ments in 11 coun­ties, in­clud­ing Ashtab­ula, Cuya­hoga, Erie, Lo­rain and Lu­cas (Toledo) coun­ties.

FILE

In Au­gust, Ohio di­verted all food-stamp ap­pli­ca­tions through the new on­line plat­form, the Ohio Ben­e­fits Sys­tem.

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