New SNAP system leading to more problems for those seeking assistance

The Food Bank of Western Mass

Ellen Vollinger of FRAC (left) and Patricia Baker of MLRI (right) led a meeting of the Massachusetts SNAP Coalition held at The Food Bank on February 13th to address the recent challenges faced with the DTA’s SNAP application system

Since this past October, the state of Massachusetts has seen an exceptionally sharp decline in the number of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly food stamps) recipients. This sudden drop is not due to recovery in the economy, but rather to a “business process redesign” implemented by the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA).

Although this new system was designed to match caseworkers with clients more quickly and provide benefits more efficiently, lack of proper testing and training for staff has resulted in a number of challenges causing problems for thousands of people across the state.

  • A new centralized phone system was instituted, requiring all calls be made to one phone number. DTA is only able to field approximately 5,500 of the nearly 24,000 calls that they receive each day. People simply aren’t able to get through.
  • Applicants are now being required to provide much more information and documentation than ever before. All of these documents are required to be sent to a single electronic data matching center in Taunton, Massachusetts.
  • Client documents are received, but there are not enough caseworkers to process them and take the appropriate actions.
  • Automated terminations are erroneously rejecting applicants from benefits that they are actually eligible for due to documents not being processed by the application deadline. At this point, applicants are being required to reapply and go through the process all over again.

These problems are having a tremendous impact on the community here in Western Massachusetts. Our SNAP department, which assists clients throughout the application process, has been able to see first-hand the results of this faulty new system.

One particular client, attempting to report a change of address and household size, was denied benefits due to a series of paperwork and clerical errors. His recertification form was incorrectly mailed to his old address (after he reported his change of address), and he was forced to wait over a month to correct the problem and eventually receive SNAP benefits for his family.

Many of our senior clients tell us that when they call the DTA main number, the phone prompts are hard to understand and it doesn’t allow enough time for them to enter their information.

In many instances, clients are being told by DTA staff that their application has not been received. In actuality, the application is at the office but has yet to be processed. In some cases the application is submitted electronically, but lack of staff trained to retrieve these documents is preventing them from being processed.

One client, who was supposed to receive expedited benefits, was never scheduled for a standard interview by DTA. She called their main number, only to be told her application could not be found and she would have to reapply. Confused and upset, she contacted The Food Bank. We contacted DTA on her behalf, but they were still unable to locate the application. It took six telephone calls to DTA and 15 days for them to process the client’s emergency food stamp benefits.

This decline in SNAP benefits has led to an increase of people seeking the services of local food pantries and meal sites. Our member agencies have reported a drastic increase in visits over the past few months, and are struggling to provide enough food for everyone in need.

As each day passes on these unprocessed applications, someone relying on assistance is not getting the help they need to put food on the table. That could mean a child going to school hungry, a senior citizen on a fixed income being forced to choose between paying for medications or food, or a working family struggling to make ends meet going without another dinner.

The Food Bank is helping to lead efforts in calling for changes to DTA’s current system. Together, with other hunger relief organizations, we are advocating for the immediate halt of all SNAP denials and terminations until the backlog is cleared. In addition, new procedures need to be implemented, allowing DTA staff to review all of the documents in a case before any termination or denial can take place. We are also recommending that DTA suspend further automated document processing, until it can be confirmed that it is accurate, relevant and affects current eligibility.