Food banks decry costly new system for food stamps
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.
In August, Ohio diverted all food-stamp applications through the new online platform, the Ohio Benefits System.