ACLU Goes After UHIP Again in Court; Seeks More Legal Help for Needy Families

Posted: Oct, 03, 2017

One Year After Disastrous UHIP Rollout, ACLU Is Heading Back to Court To Seek Additional Remedies for Needy Food Stamp Applicants

Calling the situation “intolerable” one year after the disastrous rollout of UHIP, the ACLU of Rhode Island today announced it would be going back into court to seek additional judicial remedies to ensure the timely provision of food stamp assistance to needy families.

The ACLU disclosed today that the Department of Human Services (DHS) is not only failing to meet court-ordered benchmarks for providing this assistance to eligible families, the agency is even unable to provide an accurate report on its level of compliance with those benchmarks – all in violation of a court order issued seven months ago.

Last December, the ACLU and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ) sued over the State’s critical and widespread failure to timely provide food stamp benefits (known as SNAP) to needy families due in large part to its transition to the troubled UHIP computer system. In February, the groups entered into a court-approved settlement agreement with DHS that established a timetable mandating steady improvement every month over a period of months in the agency’s processing of SNAP applications and provisions of timely benefits. The court order also mandated that the plaintiffs be given a monthly report on the agency’s level of compliance with those benchmarks. Full compliance was scheduled to be achieved by August 2017, and reported to the plaintiffs by September 15.

However, the agency has never come close to reaching those monthly benchmarks, which by August required the agency to achieve timely issuance of benefits to eligible families in 96% of SNAP applications. Compounding the damage, the state has now admitted it is unable to even provide its mandated monthly report indicating the agency’s compliance status – and, further, that earlier monthly reports may have contained inaccurate information as well. 

Instead of providing the court-ordered monthly status report to the ACLU and NCLEJ on September 15, DHS director Courtney Hawkins advised the groups that Deloitte, the private vendor responsible for the UHIP system, had encountered programming issues that were preventing the state from providing accurate data for the monthly reports that are mandated by the court order. On numerous previous occasions, after the NCLEJ and ACLU pointed out concerns with the reports, DHS had assured the two organizations that the problems were being taken care of. However, as the lack of any monthly report at all this past month reveals, the problems only seem to have gotten worse.

Under federal law, states participating in the food stamp program are required to process food stamp applications within thirty days of the date of application, and to provide expedited food stamps to eligible households within seven days. The federally funded program helps put food on the table of Rhode Island’s poorest residents, but since the implementation of the UHIP system, those deadlines have routinely not been met. 

ACLU of RI volunteer attorney Lynette Labinger said today: “The State has never complied with the benchmarks required by the court order. The State has repeatedly told us that they lack confidence in their own numbers, and now they have declined to provide a report at all.  The State apparently doesn’t even know exactly what the problems with the reporting system are. While we recognize the state’s frustration with its vendor, frustration does not put food on the table of hungry families. We have repeatedly tried without success to work with the State on implementing possible short-term and long-term measures. Under the circumstances, we have an obligation to SNAP beneficiaries to seek expanded court-ordered relief.”

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown added: “It has now been a year since the catastrophic rollout of the UHIP system. That the state, twelve months later, concedes that it is unable to even provide us numbers on how well or poorly they are complying with the settlement is simply intolerable. Enough is enough.”

When the suit was filed in December, the ACLU and NCLEJ argued that the “systematically inadequate and faulty statewide implementation” of UHIP was causing “thousands of households to suffer the imminent risk of ongoing hunger as a result of being denied desperately needed assistance to help them feed their families.”

Background on the case can be found here.