The Perfect Storm
In general terms, standards of promptness are periods of time in which a task should be completed. In terms of public benefits, the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) is required to meet various standards of promptness, depending on the benefit in question. For example, food assistance applications are to be processed within 30 days (unless expedited, then seven days), 90 days for disability-based Medicaid and 60 days for State Disability Assistance (SDA). There is a 90 day timeline guiding when a hearing request must be heard and its resulting order implemented. Rending determinations within this framework has not been something that DHS has consistently been able to do, but the scope of delay that is currently being experienced is without compare. There are three major components that have created this delay.
First, the state implemented a new computer program system. In 2008, the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) began rolling out its new computer eligibility program, Bridges. The Bridges computer system consolidated the functions of three primary and multiple secondary systems that workers used to determine eligibility and benefit determination for Michigan residents seeking cash assistance, medical assistance, food assistance, and/or child care assistance through DHS. The Bridges system was slowly implemented, county by county, throughout 2009 and now serves all DHS clients in the state.
The purpose in having one computer system for all of the programs was efficiency. Instead of having to go back and forth between different screens for the same applicant/recipient, the caseworker enters information into one program that is programmed to ask for the relevant information for the particular programs being assessed. However, the switch required caseworkers to learn a brand new way of entering information into the computer. In addition, the Bridges program itself had many glitches within its code, details that would not be evident until it was being used on a widescale basis. This was only exacerbated by the growing number of people in need of of assistance.
During the same period of time that Bridges entered widespread usage, Michigan entered into the worst economic crisis in its history. This is the second factor contributing to the delays in the DHS system. In 2001, 1,118,000 people were receiving benefits from DHS. That number grew to 2,185,352 in 2009. This reflects an increase of approximately 12% and tracks the growing number of unemployed individuals in Michigan. One strategy implemented to address this growing caseload was to create an online application for food assistance (FAP). The online process went live on August 24, 2009. Again, the number of people applying online surpassed all expectations of its creators, overwhelming the office created specifically to handle these electronic applications. On an average day, 400-500 new applications were submitted. By October 5, 2009, 17,000 people had applied for food assistance online. As a result, applications are still not being processed in a timely fashion, a reflection of what is happening in every DHS office across the state.
The final piece of this perfect storm is the lack of caseworkers available to process new claims and monitor open cases. While the state was forced to hire more child welfare caseworkers because of a federal lawsuit, it would require 700 more staffers to handle rising caseloads. This is impossible, as the state simply has no extra money in its budget to address this shortage. The average caseworker in Wayne County has approximately 800 open cases and in Berrien County, 360. This makes it extremely difficult to complete assignments on time. However, this does not negate the plights of eligible individuals and families whose cases are not opened or are closed because of lost paperwork, causing them to go without food, medication and income.
In what appears to be a rising tide, action is being taken to address these violations. In about a dozen states, class action lawsuits have been filed by the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, in conjunction with local counsel, challenging the states’ unlawful practice of delaying food assistance and Medicaid applications. As a result, there have been favorable settlements whereby states have agreed to abide by federal and state guidelines as well as provide the necessary data to determine if it is being compliant. For more information, please visit their website at http://www.nclej.org/index.php.