By Greg Trotter
Tens of thousands of Illinois households aren't receiving federal food stamp benefits leading up to the holidays because of problems with a state computer system.
In 2013, the state's Department of Human Services began rolling out a new computer system to administer entitlement benefits, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, more commonly known as SNAP or food stamps.
The second phase of that process began in late October. In November, more than 40,000 households lost their SNAP benefits, some of which have since been restored, according to state officials. As of earlier this week, more than 30,000 households remained without SNAP benefits, escalating frustrations at local benefits offices.
Officials with the Department of Human Services and representatives of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union -- which represents more than 2,400 human services caseworkers in Illinois -- disagree on what's causing the problems. But both sides say they hope to restore benefits as soon as possible for those who are eligible.
Chicago resident Edna Marshall and her family are still waiting for their SNAP benefits. Marshall, 31, in late October filed for food assistance for herself and six of her children, two of whom have disabilities, after she missed a deadline earlier that month to renew her benefits. Almost two months later, she said she still hasn't received any benefits. Caseworkers have told her the delay is because of the state's new system, Marshall said.
"We've got to feed our kids," said Marshall, who lives in the city's Gresham neighborhood. "I've been feeding my kids with my rent money."
State officials acknowledge the launch of the system's second phase hasn't gone smoothly, but say the system eventually will be more efficient and easier to use for the 1.8 million people in Illinois who receive SNAP benefits.
A certain number of SNAP recipients routinely lose their benefits each month because of missed deadlines or ineligibility, but that number ballooned after the second phase of the new system was rolled out. With the old system, the state canceled some 14,000 to 15,000 cases per month, said Diane Grigsby-Jackson, director of the division of family and community services for the Department of Human Services.
On Nov. 15, under the new system, the state canceled 41,000 cases, 12,000 of which have since been reinstated, she said.
Some caseworkers on the front lines say they're overwhelmed and undertrained.
"Everybody's learning the new system, but the problem is we're learning on the backs of poor people. And we're taking their benefits away during the worst possible season," said Vonceil Metts, a human services casework manager at a local DHS office in West Garfield Park.
Metts' message for affected families: "I apologize to our customers. It's beyond our control, but I apologize."
Every six months, a person receiving SNAP benefits has to complete an application that recertifies eligibility. But some who filed those applications in the past two months lost their benefits because their files had not been converted into the new system, said Metts, who is also president of AFSCME Local 2808.
Converting the files has been a tedious process that has prompted long waits and angry clientele in the local offices, Metts said.
Grigsby-Jackson said there are no glitches in the new computer system and that caseworkers were properly trained. But differences between the new and old systems likely caused some people to not receive their benefits.
For example, the applications to renew eligibility are due the fifth day of every month and, under the new system, benefits are automatically cut off after the 15th for cases that don't meet that deadline. Because cases had to be canceled manually in the old system, applicants had more of a grace period, she said.
The changes could have been better communicated to clients, Grigsby-Jackson said. "We want to make it right. ... And once we're on the other side of this, we'll have a system that's pretty amazing," she said.
With the new system, people receiving benefits, which also include Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash assistance, can manage their benefits online and submit applications to a central office in Springfield, in addition to visiting the local offices as before, Grigsby-Jackson said.
To help restore benefits to those who are eligible, the state has approved overtime pay for caseworkers and has sought approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Services, which oversees SNAP, to reinstate benefits.
"USDA is working with Illinois to provide technical assistance and policy guidance to resolve these problems, and will continue to work with Illinois to ensure benefits are correctly issued," said Jalil Issa, spokesman for the USDA Food and Nutrition Services, in an email.
Lori Gladson, a casework manager in the Peoria area, said the problems with the new system extend well beyond applicants simply missing deadlines.
Many people applied to renew their benefits well before the deadline and still lost their benefits, Gladson said, in part because the central office in Springfield is overwhelmed with work. And Gladson said some clients have also not been able to access their Medicaid benefits as a result.
"Why would you do this right before the holidays?" said Gladson, who also serves as president of AFSCME Local 51.
These growing pains for the new system in Illinois come as President Donald Trump and some Republican lawmakers gear up for a broader -- but unspecified -- push for welfare reform. In general, there's been bipartisan support for SNAP throughout past administrations.
In fiscal year 2017, more than 42 million Americans received assistance through SNAP, which also provides assistance in times of disaster, with the average monthly benefit of $125 per person.
Deloitte won the competitive bidding process to build the state's integrated eligibility system and has since submitted invoices to the state for $193 million, said Meghan Powers, DHS spokeswoman. The federal government has agreed to pay 90 percent of that cost, she said.
A Deloitte spokeswoman didn't respond to requests for comment.
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