OVERLAND • The reorganization of a state office and staff downsizing have created drastic barriers for Missouri’s neediest citizens, keeping food stamps, Medicaid assistance, day-care subsidies and other support out of reach, a group of advocates said Saturday.
“What we’re seeing is an atrocity. It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse,” said Holly Roe, a Family Support Division caseworker, who argues that the disabled and seniors can’t navigate a broken system to get the help they need.
Jobs With Justice held a public meeting Saturday in conjunction with Communications Workers of America Local No. 6355 at Overland Baptist Church. Testimony addressed the effects of staff cuts and new, self-serve, kiosk-style “resource centers” in the state’s Family Support Division offices.
Missouri is the only state to see a decrease in people receiving food stamps through the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, said Glenn Koenen of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare. The state saw a 10.5 percent decrease in participants from December 2008 through 2013, while enrollment rose in every other state because of the recession and its lingering effects. That included increases in oil-rich South Dakota, where the economy is booming, Koenen said.
State officials attribute the decreases to an improving economy. In the past 18 months Medicaid enrollment in Missouri declined by some 50,000 people while child care subsidy has also sharply declined, said Martin Rafanan, co-chairman of the Workers Rights Board. But Koenen said Missouri’s slowly recovering economy could not explain such drastic decreases.
He and others argued that disorganization, lack of staff and denial by state officials were the reasons enrollment was dropping.
Roe said her co-workers in the Family Support Division can’t handle caseloads averaging 1,000 to 1,200 clients per state worker. She said that the new call centers were a “high-priced answering service” and that applicants couldn’t get a person on the phone. Others said applicants waited for scheduled phone calls from caseworkers that never came and had their benefits canceled because paperwork was lost or not entered into a computer.
“We have termed the work that gets done as ‘winning the lottery.’ ” Roe said.
Marilyn Brown, a food stamp recipient, said she was required to reapply for SNAP every six months, but her reapplication was rejected six times in the past three years because the state claimed her paperwork was incomplete even though she had hand-delivered the documents to state offices. “It just seems to me the people at the top don’t have a clue with what’s going on with the people on the bottom,” Brown said.
Others, such as Angie Reckelhoff, described the months it took to sign her three children up for Medicaid health insurance after she lost her job.
In a written statement, a state spokeswoman said the Family Support Division was “currently transitioning to an improved way of doing business” and had approved plans to eliminate 100 positions through fiscal year 2014. Gov. Jay Nixon is also recommending that another 170 positions be cut in fiscal year 2015.
“Resource Centers will be staffed,” said the statement, “... it is likely a local office may need fewer personnel as we transition to this new way of doing business. A customer will be able to see an FSD team member, if they want to see a team member.”
But Adam Seehaver, an organizing director with CWA, said his union found staff members were unavailable to help applicants. Earlier this year the union sent eight “secret shoppers” into Family Support Division offices in and around St. Louis and mid-Missouri to track whether applicants could get an “interview” with a state worker to help with applications. Under federal law, SNAP applicants are entitled to a face-to-face interview the same day they come to an office to apply for assistance.
Only one of the eight secret shoppers was initially offered a face-to-face interview. Of the eight who requested the interview that day, six of them were denied their request. And only three were offered an option of a scheduled telephone interview.
The report further cited statistics from the Department of Social services that indicated a drastic rise in the number of SNAP applications rejected under the code “unable to complete interview,” meaning the application was incomplete because it did not have a required staff interview. In September 2009, only 196 applications were rejected under this coding. In September 2013, that number had spiked to 7,001 rejections.
“The bottom line is there just aren’t enough people to do the work,” Seehaver said.