AUGUSTA — The Department of Health and Human Services blames short staffing for a delay in its delivery of supplemental food benefits to eligible low-income Mainers.
DHHS spokesman John Martins, who could not immediately identify how many recipients are being affected by the problem, said the backlog affects people who are involved in the annual renewal process, which involves reaffirming financial information and other eligibility criteria.
“There is a backlog of cases and we are using all available staff resources to address them in the short term,” wrote Martins in response to questions emailed by the Bangor Daily News. “Staffing is a primary reason for the backlog (vacancies and staff turnover) and we are currently working to fill vacant positions.”
Terrie Haggey, a mental health worker in the Bangor area, said she has several clients who have been affected by the delays, and that local food banks and other charity organizations are usually unable to fill the void.
“This has caused people to go for days or weeks without food stamps,” said Haggey. “A lot of our folks are living off $700 a month and most of them can’t afford not to have that for weeks on end.”
Haggey said the delays have ranged from a few days to three weeks.
“This is hitting a portion of the whole food stamp population,” said Haggey.
Martins said the problem is likely at a monthly peak right now because of the schedule under which annual reviews are processed and benefits distributed. Anyone due for an annual review must submit information to DHHS by the 10th day of the month, and information is processed in a first-in, first-out manner.
Under normal circumstances, benefits are released to people’s state-issued EBT cards between the 10th and 14th of the following month.
Martins said despite the delays, recipients will receive all of the benefits they are entitled to once their paperwork is processed. The Office for Family Independence is in the midst of revamping the way it processes food stamps and other benefits, including the introduction of electronic imaging and other technology, and is moving toward a more task-oriented workforce, versus a geographically based one.
“By using technology and other resources, the workload can be spread out over all DHHS offices, which will allow for cases to be processed faster and for more balance in the workload across the state,” said Martins. “This process redesign is currently underway with full completion targeted by the end of the calendar year.”
According to DHHS data, in May 2014, more than 230,000 individuals in Maine were receiving food stamps for a total distribution of some $26.9 million in benefits. Cumberland County had the highest distribution — $4.4 million — followed by Penobscot County at $3.4 million, and Androscoggin and York counties with about $2.9 million. The lowest-receiving county from a monetary perspective was Piscataquis, with about $458,000 in food stamps distributed in May.
Food stamps, which since 2008 have been called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are funded by the federal government.