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SNAP Update: Wrongful SNAP Denials/Closings Continue to Grow in MA, Backlog of Unprocessed Documents Huge; WMass Food Bank Strained by High Unemployment and Food Demand

As many of you likely know, Governor Baker asked all of the Secretaries and Commissioners from the Patrick Administration to step down by January 7th, including Commissioner Monahan. In late November, Mary Lou Sudders was appointed as the new Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS), replacing John Polanowicz. See Globe story. As of today, the Baker Administration has not yet appointed a new DTA Commissioner - we will keep you posted as soon as this happens.
 
Severe SNAP Caseload Decline Continues in Massachusetts - far exceeding national average:
According to the most recent USDA data (posted 1/10/15), the MA caseload SNAP continues to decline at a rate far exceeding the national average. See state SNAP data https://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap  Go to "Latest Available Month." 
  • Between Oct 2013 and Oct 2014, the number of individual SNAP recipients in MA fell by 72,550 individuals - a decline of 8.3%. The drop in the national average for the same time period is 1.6%. The number of SNAP households (families) fell by 36,414 -a decline of 8.2% compared with the national average of 1.6%.
  • In just one month - Sept 2014 to Oct 2014 - the SNAP caseload declined by 1.2%, more than twice the national average (of .5%) and higher than most every other state in the nation.
  • The MA SNAP household decline is 5 times the national average, and individual SNAP decline 9 times the national average!
  • If 72,000 fewer individuals participate in the SNAP program, that means $100 M less in federal SNAP $$ to the Commonwealth (average of $122/mo/pp x 12mo  x 72K pp).  
The Recession is not over for many MA residents! The need for SNAP benefits has not declined. A recent news article in mass.live featuring the great work of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in both food distribution and SNAP outreach highlights how hunger and food insecurity continues throughout the area due to persistent unemployment. Hats off to the FBWM for this timely coverage: http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2015/01/war_on_pverty_hunger_in_wester.html 
 
Auto SNAP case closures and "churning" of SNAP cases on the rise:
We remain alarmed at the stories coming in from SNAP outreach partners and community based organizations (CBOs) about the problems SNAP applicants and recipients increasingly face in getting and keeping their SNAP benefits. We've seen a significant surge in erroneous SNAP denials/closings throughout the state, requiring low income households to reapply for benefits - a process often referred to as "churning." CBOs and DTA front line staff who are upset about what they are seeing have are reporting -
  • Client documents mailed or faxed to the Taunton Electronic Document Center (EDC) are not reviewed and processed timely (including SNAP applications, recerts, verifications).
  • DTA is issuing massive "batch denials" - automated denials at Day 30 - without any DTA worker review to determine if documents are in fact in the EDC processing queue! 
  • About 10 days ago, according to various DTA local staff, there were over 83,000 unprocessed documents in the EDC processing queue - documents the EDC received and scanned but DTA staff did not process them. (Last week, DTA Central apparently disabled the "DTA Dashboard" that tracks the number of unprocessed documents in the Taunton EDC.)
  • Virtual Gateway (on-line) SNAP applications are not consistently pulled into the BEACON system. One advocate recently called to report DTA contacted her asking her to fax a printout of the VG on-line application because they could not find it in BEACON (but found a fax cover sheet from the CBO).! 
  • Local DTA walk-in clients who attempt to hand in documents at local DTA offices repeatedly deflected and told they must "mail documents to Taunton" or they can "wait a few hours" to hand a document to a DTA worker. DTA has dismantled the local "drop boxes." Local DTA offices will not accept, date stamp and ship documents to Taunton by fax unless a client is willing to wait for hours simply to hand in a document!  
  • Local DTA walk-in clients are not offered the option to sign a "request for assistance" to start the SNAP application, nor screened for expedited (emergency) SNAP benefits. CBOs report that walk-ins are given paper SNAP applications to mail to Taunton and/or told to apply on line and in one case, was verbally told "there is no such thing as emergency food stamps.".  
  • SNAP Outreach Partners are reporting a high level of SNAP denials for lack of verification despite their having faxed documents to DTA. Advocates who persist with the DTA Assistance Line are getting cases reopened when they identify the exact date and time they faxed documents but NO explanation as to why the documents were not found by DTA in first place. We are especially worried about low income households who applied on their own and sent in documents DTA cannot find..
  • In a bizarre twist of events, last week DTA Central oddly added a collection agency phone number on the initial greeting of the DTA Assistance line, "Allen Daniel Associates" (a private collection agency that has a small number of overpayment collections for former recipients)!  MLRI called Allan Daniel Associates and learned they had been "inundated with calls from SNAP applicants and recipients trying to get a interview with their SNAP workers" - clients who had NO collection action against them pending!  We were able to get the Comptroller's Office to shut this down over the weekend.
It is critical we continue to flag SNAP access barriers with the DTA Ombuds and the Food and Nutrition Service New England Regional Office (FNS NERO). While state agency modernization can work well if done right, we remain deeply concerned that the former Administration's hastily implemented "modernization" changes have created serious access barriers for thousands of needy MAs residents. See more in the following blog: https://hesterprynne.net/2015/01/08/the-patrick-administrations-legacy-on-poverty-flaws-at-dta/  MLRI and SNAP Coalition Members are hoping the new Baker Administration will work closely with anti-hunger organizations to correct many of these case handling problems. 
 
What you can do?
  1. Help families track their SNAP applications and recertifications and report back to you what happens.  Attached is a one-page "Next Steps" sheet you can fill out and give clients.
  2. Document problems that surface in individual SNAP cases. We urge you to share case examples with the DTA Ombuds Office, the incoming DTA Commissioner and his/her staff, as well as with staff at EOHHS and the USDA New England Regional Office staff.  We can provided you with contact information. Please also bring your examples to the upcoming Boston SNAP Coalition meeting, Jan. 27th.
  3. Monitor DTA office and retailer practices in your local area. Attached is a flier based on one that our friends from the Coalition for Social Justice (CSJ) created to monitor the local DTA Offices on the South Shore, the DTA Assistance Line, DHDC and retailers. Feel free to revise and use it for monitoring activities in your area. 
  4. Contact your local State Senators and State Representatives about the SNAP caseload drop and problems you are seeing in your immediate community. We may need to seek legislative help to resolve these problems.