Over 1,200 needy families suffered delays in receiving SNAP benefits in March, including over 800 families who qualified for expedited benefits because of their emergency need, according to a recent RI Department of Human Services (DHS) report. The report was required by the recent settlement of a lawsuit filed in December by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island (ACLU) and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ), challenging DHS's failure to timely process SNAP applications.
According to DHS, fewer than 60% of all SNAP application decisions in March were timely. More specifically, only 58% of the decisions on expedited (emergency) applications were made within the required 7 days, and only 55% of the decisions on regular SNAP applications were made within the required 30 days.
The ACLU and NCLEJ called the March report of continued delays in issuing SNAP benefits a cause for concern. Under the settlement agreement, which requires steady improvement in DHS processing of applications, the agency must timely decide 80% of SNAP expedited applications and 75% of regular applications for the month of April. Whether DHS met this court-ordered standard will be disclosed on May 15, when the state’s next report is due to be released to the plaintiffs.
In a letter sent with the report of the state’s performance in March, acting DHS director Eric Beane said that 85% of SNAP expedited applications received in March were processed on time, but he acknowledged that “the backlog is not yet fully resolved” and the state expects "lower timeliness rates than those set for the April 2017 submission."
Lynette Labinger, volunteer attorney for the ACLU, said: "The State contends that it is prioritizing reducing and ultimately eliminating the longstanding backlog of SNAP applications, which has left many applicants without benefits for long periods of time. Its preliminary data suggests, however, that it does not yet have control of this problem. We hope that the April report contains better news. But we will be monitoring that report and all future reports closely and will return to court for additional relief if necessary."
When the suit was filed in December, the ACLU and NCLEJ argued that the "systematically inadequate and faulty statewide implementation" of UHIP, the state's troubled new computer system, 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."
Among other things, the settlement agreement requires DHS to meet specific targets and timetables for improving its timely processing of SNAP applications, starting with the month of April. By the end of August, DHS must timely decide 96% of SNAP expedited and regular applications. The federal court will retain jurisdiction of the case for at least one year after the state first achieves the 96% compliance rate.