August 18, 2010, column by then-Seven Days columnist Shay Totten:
“During the last legislative session, Democrats repeatedly promised they were not renegotiating the ‘social contract with Vermonters,’ even as they largely went along with the State to cut taxes, trim spending and eliminate state jobs. To prove it, they liberalized the state’s definition of poverty, meaning more Vermonters could qualify for economic help. They also OK’d a massive “modernization” effort to simplify the process of applying for benefits. Eventually, people will be able to sign up online and communicate with state workers over the phone rather than in person.
And more Vermonters are asking for help: In June 2008, 23,000 households and 51,000 individuals received 3SquaresVT, formerly known as “food stamps.” By June 2010 those numbers had exploded to 43,000 and 86,000, respectively. On average, food-stamp recipients receive $1 per meal. Comparatively, [a top State official] gets $61 a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year for three squares; lawmakers get $61 a day for meals during the session.
Meanwhile, fewer state workers are on hand to process applications, and a crucial computer upgrade hasn’t happened.
The result? Instead of receiving benefits within 30 days of filing an application, Vermonters now have to wait 60 to 80.
The state used to make very few processing errors. Because of its excellent record, the feds forked over $2.8 million, money the state used to fund its “modernization” plan.
Vermont has since toppled from among the top 10 error-free states to 44th. Its mistake rate is now higher than 7 percent, according to Department for Children and Families Commissioner Steve Dale. If that rate persists for two fiscal years, the state could be penalized.
Dale doesn’t think it will come to that, but he admits there is insufficient staff to meet demand.
An electronic application process that was supposed to be online this past winter, and then July, is now scheduled for October. In the meantime, staffers are expending valuable time and resources manually scanning new applications into a central database.
“We didn’t really understand the consequences of the delay until just recently,” said Dale. “There’s no question that the increase in demand, too, has been more than expected given the economic climate.”
Call-center inquiries have spiked, too, from people wondering about their tardy benefits claims.
That call center is understaffed and workers are feeling the pressure, according to an employee who asked to remain anonymous.
“When we started, we were told that 60 was the average [number of] calls that they expected each would do. Some of the agents are taking 100 to 120 per day,” the worker noted. “Some of us end up working overtime because the calls are backed up in the queue 30 minutes or more. The supervisors will then step in and take names and numbers, and we stay late to call them back.”
The call center is supposed to have 22 staffers, but budget cuts have left it with only 16. Two additional workers will soon be added, and another eight temporary workers are being trained to provide backup support during peak call times, Dale said.
“What is happening right now is unacceptable,” he said, “and we’re going to make it right. People are putting in an incredible effort to make sure [Vermonters] get their benefits. We have to turn this around.”
Food-stamp delays mean some individuals will have to make difficult choices.
’The ripple effect is not just that people are waiting three months for food-stamps benefits, but what they now spend on food leaves less money for rent or electricity, and soon for heating,’ said Angela Smith-Dieng of the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. “Unfortunately, I think it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.”
Commentary from the November 24, 2010, Brattleboro Reformer:
Budgets Cut, People Bleed
The next time you hear a politician say, "We will not make budget cuts that hurt the most vulnerable among us," ask them about the Vermont Department of Children and Families/Economic Services Division efforts to modernize its application, eligibility and enrollment programs for the public programs it administers, including health care programs.
"Modernize" has turned out to be a euphemism for the potentially fatal budget cuts that have harmed the lives of Vermonters. One of those modernization efforts has been to partially eliminate the human-to-human method of case management and turn it into an encounter in voice mail hell.
In years past, someone who was receiving any of a variety of essential human service support from the state would be able to make contact with a case manager, a real person who knew the system and who could help someone apply for benefits and stay with that person for the long run.
Now, when a person looking for state services make that first call, instead of being assigned a case manager or being able to have a consistent relationship with a knowledgeable person, they are required to deal with an automated voice mail system.
In an effort to save money the state has created call centers. Data for the week ending Oct. 22 indicate the average wait time on the phone was 7 minutes and the longest wait time was 27 minutes. The most alarming statistic is that 18 percent of people who call hang up before they get an answer.
According to one of my sources who has a long history of working with state programs and who directly asked state officials how they are dealing with these kinds of delays and problems, "The Department (of Children and Families) continues to say it has taken steps to address these issues, but these steps are not working and the problems are getting worse. The department has been saying for weeks that it has hired temporary staff and has staff working overtime and weekends. However, because the caseloads keep growing and new staff has to be trained, there has been no improvement. These steps are not adequate to resolve the problems. The number of incoming applications and case loads are too high. These delays are a clear example of the effect on Vermonters of the budget-cutting of the last few years, eliminating too many state workers."
"There are no longer enough state staff to handle the volume of work. It seems clear that new staff must be permanently hired and trained, and unfortunately, it takes a significant amount of time to train new staff on the various programs. The Department does not appear to be entertaining this as an option."
Then there are the resulting problems when people actually file an application for a health care program such as Catamount or VHAP. State and federal law requires that the state must make a decision on a new application within 30 days, but my sources tell me that this is only happening in 63 percent of cases. The delays are so bad that for the week ending Oct. 22, 21 percent of applications were taking 31-35 days and 16 percent took over 45 days.
This is a situation begging for a law suit. I have heard of cases where people applied for VHAP or Catamount health insurance and then were told their application was denied because it was not processed in the required 30 days. The delay was the fault of the state, not the applicant. The state claims they are working to resolve these problems, but some of their solutions seem like they will only create more frustration for those in need who are applying for help. If the intent of the state was to frustrate people so they would give up and not apply for benefits then they have succeeded.
State workers do carry caseloads but they are no longer geographically based. Someone in Brattleboro who applies for food stamps will have their application processed by a food stamp expert who could be based anywhere in the state and, if the same person also applies for VHAP, they will have to deal with another state worker somewhere else in the state.
Then there are the "community partners" plans. It is a way for the state to administer services in the most haphazard way possible without having to pay for the help. The state has asked community organizations and non-profits to help people with the application process for state programs.
When common sense is cast aside and the politics of budget cutting has a higher priority than the needs of vulnerable Vermonters, this is the mess we end up with. We can only hope that the new…administration will take a close look at this situation and figure out how to fix it.
We can still maintain fiscal discipline while not shredding the state’s social safety net. That is a challenge we can rise to meet.
Richard Davis is a registered nurse and executive director of Vermont Citizens Campaign for Health. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at email@example.com.
Commentary was published November 29, 2010, in the Burlington Free Press:
The Burlington Free Press article “Left on Hold” (Nov. 21) is to be applauded for bringing attention to problems caused by the implementation of the state’s eligibility and enrollment systems modernization plan for programs like 3SquaresVT, Dr. Dynasaur and Fuel Assistance. However, the article missed an important point — these problems, ones that have caused uncountable financial, health and family problems for hundreds of Vermonters, could easily have been prevented.
These eligibility and enrollment systems needed to be modernized. Vermonters had complained for years about not being able to apply online, talk to a specialist who could answer complex eligibility questions, or get through to case workers in a timely way. But developing a modernization plan as important and far reaching as this on a "shoestring" budget, as Department for Children and Families (DCF) Commissioner Stephen Dale stated, did an enormous disservice to thousands of Vermonters who are struggling to make ends meet.
When someone can’t get Food Stamps, they might not eat. When they can’t get their health care application processed or when their health insurance is terminated because the state can’t process the paperwork in time, they can’t see their doctor to get necessary treatment. My organization has worked with many such people. These are not just "growing pains" as [the State’s] spokesman describes, but real life tragedies that frequently cause irreparable harm to families.
This crisis stems largely from [the State’s] and the Legislature’s decision to cut the state budget and workforce at a time when, because of the recession, there was increased demand for state services. Everyone involved with the modernization plan knew how complex it would be, yet 16 essential staff positions were eliminated just as delays and problems were becoming evident. The problems with DCF’s implementation of it modernization process is but one example showing that the state budget and workforce have been cut to a point where state government cannot deliver on its most important mission, helping Vermonters in need of assistance.
Now, with the state facing an estimated $112 million deficit for the next fiscal year, the Legislature and Governor-elect Shumlin must be willing to raise new revenue and not merely rely on budget cuts to solve our deficit problem. Elderly Vermonters cannot continue to go without fuel or food. Sick Vermonters cannot go without treatment. The problems with DCF’s implementation of its modernization system is state government’s version of the canary in the coal mine. Pursuing greater efficiency in state government is an admirable goal, and one we all share, but under the [State’s] "efficiency" mantra simply became code for slashing staff and programs. Gov.-elect Shumlin would be wise to reconsider this approach.
Donna Sutton Fay is the Policy Director of the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security Education Fund.