AUGUSTA, Maine - Advocates for the low-income, elderly and disabled say they are concerned by the barriers their clients are facing getting food supplement benefits and other assistance from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Some clients report having to wait for months to get timely help. Others are finding that they must spend more than an hour on the phone to get someone at the department to answer a question. Recent administrative changes are believed to be the culprit, along with inadequate staffing.
Mike Smith and his wife, Stephanie Wilburn, say they encountered problems at DHHS when they applied for benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, back in March. The two are currently homeless and living in a tent in Westbrook along with several of their friends.
"I went in and applied and two weeks later they still hadn't responded to me, even though it said seven-to-ten days later they'd respond," Smith says.
Smith says he and his wife tried to wait it out by eating at a food pantry in Portland every day while they both looked for work. But as the weeks stretched into months, they grew frustrated. Finally, with the help of their Preble Street housing counselor they got in touch with an attorney at Pine Tree Legal Assistance who wrote a letter to DHHS on their behalf. Smith says only then were they able to get an appointment in person and resolve their case.
And then when we finally went in and talked to the lady in person she said, 'I apologize but we're four or five months backed up and you probably wouldn't have gotten a response had you not sent in this letter from Pine Tree Legal.' "
Jim Devine, an advocate with the group Homeless Voices for Justice, is also a MaineCare and SNAP recipient. His problem started when he got a letter in May saying it was time to review his eligibility for benefits. It's something that routinely happens once a year. Devine filled out a review form, mailed it in before the deadline, and waited.
"And then I got a letter from them dated July 2nd, and it says 'Food Supplement will close July 1st because you have not completed a review.' You know, and that's insane because I did complete a review and mailed it back to them."
Devine says he spent more than an hour on hold trying unsuccessfully to talk to someone at DHHS. A few days later, he says he eventually connected with someone who told him the letter he received was an error and that he'd actually be getting more assistance than he did before.
"If I hadn't been persistent about the whole thing I could have just lost everything for no good reason," Devine says.
Advocates say these kinds of problems are not confined to Portland. Ericka Veazey is a staff attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Bangor who says she and her clients routinely wait between 30 and 90 minutes to speak to someone at DHHS. And recently, several of her clients were informed that their SNAP benefits were being terminated because they didn't complete a final telephone interview.
"There's a lot of confusion because the notices people get are automatically generated so all they say is you didn't complete the recertification process and it does not explain the delay is the phone interview, if you call us we may be able to get this done sooner," Veazey says. "People are just left being told you don't have your benefits anymore."
Veazey says the problems began a few months ago after the department moved away from a caseworker model for handling clients' cases to a "task-based" or electronic system. DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew says the idea is to modernize an antiquated system and create what she calls a "client-centered" focus for customer service.
Changing the system is a massive undertaking and Mayhew acknowledges that there are hurdles to overcome. "In one month recently we received over 71,000 calls. Statewide we see over 19,000 walk-ins to our various district offices. This is certainly a focus of continuous process and quality improvement. We need to be open to receiving feedback related to these concerns."
Mayhew says DHHS is committed to being more responsive. She points to the availability of online portals at kiosks in district offices to handle applications. She says these can help reduce the need for repeated visits with staff, whose numbers have shrunk by 9 percent since 2008.
Still, some advocates aren't sold on the changes. "Yes, it would be nice if everyone could use a kiosk but there's a lot of elderly people who can't use a computer," says Connie Jones, of SeniorsPlus. Jones, who helps older and disabled adults access the services they need, says a lot of her clients don't want to ask for help in the first place, so when they can't figure something out or talk to someone in person, they'll often give up.
"They can't use the phone because it takes too long," Jones says. "They're not wanted at the office to do this and papers get lost. So how are they supposed to get the services they really need?"
Jones says she has a good relationship with DHHS but she thinks the department is severely understaffed and that the system is being overhauled so quickly that she worries some of Maine's most vulnerable could be falling through the cracks.
Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves says the problems are sad but not surprising. "This department has been so mismanaged," he says. "The laundry list of things that have gone wrong that can't get corrected at the department is extremely unfortunate and this time has consequences on those that are needing services."
Commissioner Mayhew says her department needs time to implement the new measures. She says the goal is to spread out work among eligibility caseworkers who currently handle about 1,000 clients each.