Official: Rhode Island food stamp backlog eliminated
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The attorney appointed by a federal judge to deal with failures in Rhode Island’s food stamp system says the state has eliminated a backlog of thousands of applications. The state has been grappling with problems since it introduced a new computer system last year.
Deming Sherman also said in a report filed in U.S. District Court in Providence last week that the state is almost current on processing new applications.
He said he is also working to address several long-term problems with the food stamp system that serves 170,000 people in Rhode Island, and said they mainly involve understaffing and technical issues with the new computer system.
“There is no magic bullet,” he wrote.
Sherman was appointed last month to ensure the state complies with the court-ordered terms of a settlement with the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU sued, saying the state failed to process food stamp applications and issue benefits within the time frames mandated by the federal government.
The RI Bridges computer system, part of the Unified Health Infrastructure Project, or UHIP, was designed to be a central place to handle applications for food stamps, Medicaid benefits and other state services. It went online last year, despite the warnings of federal officials, who said it was not ready.
“The system has not fully worked as designed, and there is a considerable effort underway to remedy the problems,” Sherman wrote in his report.
Sherman, who was appointed only to deal with the food stamps system, said he sees problems in several areas going forward. Among them are staffing issues at a centralized call center, and what he said is not enough well-trained staff to handle calls. He said there also continue to be long lines at Department of Human Services offices.
Sherman also said he plans to work on simplifying a paper application and getting the “customer portal” part of the computer system to work better. Both can be used to apply for benefits. He cited computer problems at a scanning center that handles paperwork, as well.
The computer system was built by contractor Deloitte, which continues to work on fixing it. Sherman said 600 Deloitte employees are working on the system, but when there is a problem flagged to the company, a fix can often take weeks or months. He said he plans to discuss the issue further with Deloitte. The company this year has credited the state $85 million for the issues.
Asked in an interview what he saw had gone wrong with the system in the past, Sherman said that was not his job and he was not focused on that. But he said it was clear that the system was not ready to go into service, and it had not been fully tested.
“Deloitte and the governor decided they were ready. They clearly weren’t ready,” Sherman said.
He tied it to a combination of technological and staffing problems, raising as an example the state’s decision to lay off staff who worked with food stamp applicants, before realizing they should not have done so.
Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo on Friday said she agreed with the criticisms, but said she is now more engaged in the process. She said people should hold her accountable but said every leader makes mistakes. She also reiterated her criticisms of Deloitte for selling the state a system that has been plagued with problems.