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Local

Delays in processing food stamp applications land state in hot water

Illinois risks losing more than $18 million in federal funds if it doesn’t speed up processing times on food stamp applications within the next month, according to a warning letter sent to the state.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture told the Illinois Department of Human Services that it has until April 21 to substantially improve its timeliness or establish a plan for doing so. Timely processing of food stamp applications has been a longstanding problem in Illinois that got worse as it rolled out a new computer system in late 2017 that was meant to improve efficiency, according to the Friday letter from Trish Solis, acting regional administrator for the USDA’s Midwest region.

The USDA, which funds and administers the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, requires states to process applications within 30 days, while expedited cases should be completed within seven days. Illinois in January processed 63 percent of food stamp applications on time, and it needs to get that rate to over 95 percent, the federal agency said.

If the state fails to provide evidence that it is in compliance or submit a plan with a timeline for when it will comply, USDA could suspend up to $18.3 million in federal funds used for state administrative expenses, which is a quarter of the projected cost for administering SNAP.

The state’s Department of Human Services, helmed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s newly appointed Secretary Grace Hou, highlighted that the problems occurred under the previous administration and pledged to fix them.

“The new administration is working quickly to rectify this issue by addressing SNAP application processing issues at our local offices and filling caseworker vacancies,” the department said in a statement. “We take our responsibility to ensure Illinoisans have access to reliable food assistance very seriously and we will look for any and all opportunities to provide better service to our customers as we move forward.”

Some 1.8 million people in Illinois use SNAP for groceries, most of them children, the elderly or people with disabilities.

Diane Doherty, executive director of the Illinois Hunger Coalition, urged the state to work quickly to fill caseworker vacancies as well as clerical positions, which are partly to blame for processing delays. State staffers have informed her there are 400 vacancies at local benefits offices, she said.

But also problematic has been the state’s rocky adoption of an automated system that was intended to streamline the application process but has instead exacerbated the workload, Doherty said. Her organization, which runs a hotline, said SNAP applicants have called to say their applications are taking a month longer than they should or that their benefits are being cancelled when they shouldn’t be.

“They fix one problem and then another one pops up,” Doherty said of the system, which was developed by Deloitte for about $200 million in mostly federal funds. “With all the money that we’ve spent on this technology you’d think that there would be better efficiencies.”

The USDA’s recent “formal warning” follows up on an “advance warning” it issued to the state in September 2016 that set benchmarks for improving application processing times. Illinois satisfied the first benchmark, achieving a 99 percent timeliness rate between September 2016 and March 2017, but it failed the second benchmark when its timeliness rate fell to 90 percent over the subsequent six months.

The rate got much worse in October 2017 after the new computer system was phased in. Over the most recent six months the state has averaged a timeliness rate of 64 percent.

Illinois is among the 10 worst states for timeliness rates in the country, according to USDA.

“Our goal is to help IDHS avoid suspension of administrative funding and ensure access to SNAP for eligible households in Illinois as well as the integrity of the program,” the federal agency said in its letter.

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aelejalderuiz@chicagotribune.com

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©2019 the Chicago Tribune

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