ATLANTA -- The federal government is looking into the Department of Family and Children's Services' food stamp program. They are demanding that DFCS fix the ongoing problems, or they said they will fix it for them.
Thousands of people have been falling through the cracks, unexpectedly losing their benefits for months.
Ami Davis told 11Alive's Rebecca Lindstrom she was grateful for the station's coverage. "We thought it was just us that was struggling, maybe it was our phones, something we weren't doing right," said Davis, with a stack full of documents in front of her.
Davis has applied four times in the past five months. Every time she gets caught in one of the system's glitches.
The USDA recently sent Georgia Department of Humans Services Commissioner Keith Horton a stern letter, warning that if the problems are not fixed within two months, it could suspend the $75 million federal funding that helps runs the program.
The USDA calls the problems with the program deeply concerning and said that the state's responses thus far have been inadequate.
DFCS has sent a letter to employees involved in processing the applications that they will be required to do a minimum of 8 overtime hours each week until the problem is solved.
According to data given to the USDA, in February, more than 30,000 families were still experiencing significant delays. In a letter to 11Alive on Friday, DFCS said as of February 28th, there were 81,000 cases across all programs, which includes Medicaid, that it considered overdue. There are another 85,000 applications that must legally be processed by the end of March.
"Help is on the way for our customers," said DFCS' Susan Boatwright. "We care very much about people deserving benefits, getting benefits."
Thursday night, Keith Horton, the Commissioner of DHS released the following statement to 11Alive News:
"A series of events, including a transition to a new business process, hurdles with technology and staffing shortages, have had a negative impact on those eligible for food stamp benefits in Georgia. Currently, the Division of Family and Children Services in the Department of Human Services is working through a significant backlog of applications for benefits and requests for eligibility renewal.
"As of March 1, the agency was behind schedule on processing 30,569 applications and benefit renewals.
"We know that each of these overdue cases represents a family in need, and we will make sure those families get the assistance they require.
"Georgia DFCS has already been working on strategies that would improve access to these services. Over the last several weeks, the agency has been in close communication with vendors to ensure we have adequate technology , and we continue to hire and train staff who can make agency services more accessible to those in need.
"Already, many DFCS employees have been volunteering overtime hours in order to help better serve our clients, and we are considering increasing the level of staffing resources dedicated to solving this problem.
"Our federal partners acknowledge that our current efforts have resulted in some progress, but have asked that we continue to work to ensure that eligible, low-income Georgians are able to put food on their families' tables.
"We are confident we can meet the federal government's deadlines for improved service to our clients and will not jeopardize future funding to Georgia's programs for those in need."
DFCS says it has been hiring more workers to process applications and conduct legally required interviews to verify eligibility. The problem has been tied in part to a new phone intake system that manages applications. Bottom line - if you don't get through, you don't get benefits.
An 11Alive review of emails exchanged within the division show ongoing problems with the technological infrastructure also impeded workers ability to process applications. In the first three weeks of February, between software shut downs, the storm and holiday, workers only had four full days to process applications.
Lawmakers furious about the problem have started speaking out.
"Either they don't have the will to fix it. Or number two, they're incompetent," said Senator Vincent Fort.
In November the state spent $3,600 on overtime. That amount shot up to nearly $390,000 in December and January. While the details of how much overtime will be required now have yet to be released, the expected cost to taxpayers will certainly grow.
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