News : Lawsuit Blames Call Center for Benefit Delays
Lincoln, NB, August 7, 2014 -- A federal class action lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges that Nebraska unlawfully delays people from getting needed food assistance.
The suit targets AccessNebraska, the state’s call center system for processing public benefits applications.
It was filed on behalf of Tami Leiting-Hall of Lincoln and all others who have been affected by the state’s delays in benefits processing.
Leiting-Hall is a single mother of a 10-year-old and works about 35 hours a week at a fast-food restaurant.
The Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice are representing her.
According to the suit, Leiting-Hall applied on June 16 to renew food stamp benefits for herself and her son. Food stamps are officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Federal regulations say SNAP applications must be processed within 30 days in most cases or seven days in expedited cases.
But the suit alleges that, on July 14, a state worker told Leiting-Hall that her case was still pending and advised her to use local soup kitchens and food banks until her application went through. As of July 31, she had not received her benefits.
James Goddard, an attorney with Appleseed, said Leiting-Hall’s experience is not an isolated incident.
He blamed the delay on AccessNebraska, which he said "continues to have systemic problems" despite numerous efforts to fix the system.
"We’ve gotten to a place where we believe hundreds of folks each month are waiting to get food assistance," Goddard said. "If people don’t get food assistance in a timely manner, they can go hungry."
The suit names Kerry Winterer, CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and Thomas Pristow, director of the HHS Division of Children and Family Services, as defendants.
An HHS spokesman said Wednesday that the department does not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit asks for a court order directing HHS to ensure that everyone seeking food assistance has the opportunity to get through the application process within the 30-day window.
According to the lawsuit, HHS officials have said 69.03 percent of SNAP applications were processed on time during fiscal year 2013, meaning that 30.97 percent were delayed.
AccessNebraska has been plagued by long waiting times, busy signals, lost documents and a backlog of unfinished tasks since it was launched in 2009.
AccessNebraska was intended to streamline the process of applying for all public benefits, including SNAP, Medicaid and heating assistance. The system was touted as a way to save millions of dollars in taxpayer money.
However, a legislative oversight committee concluded in December that AccessNebraska had "failed dramatically" to reach key goals.
In October, two of the four call centers were assigned to handle applications only for Medicaid and Kids Connection, a program that provides health coverage for children. The other two call centers continue to handle other public benefits programs.
The system and its problems are the focus of a special legislative investigative committee this summer.
HHS officials have made several attempts to fix the system over the years, but problems persist. Goddard said the lawsuit was filed because of the failure of the previous efforts and the critical nature of food assistance.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Access Nebraska allows you to apply for Nebraska public assistance benefits.
Published: Monday, August 11, 2014
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