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Automated food-stamp benefits system in Ohio needs a rethink - and immediate fixes: editorial

February 22, 2019

Automated food-stamp benefits system in Ohio needs a rethink - and immediate fixes: editorial

Trying to automate how an Ohioan can apply for and receive human-services benefits is enormously complex. That helps explain, but does not excuse, the serious problems hungry Ohioans are experiencing in applying for food stamps under a new automated system Ohio recently implemented. The system appears to be wrongly excluding needy Ohioans while handicapping Ohio’s network of food banks in their attempts to intercede for poor and elderly food-stamp recipients.

The situation is unacceptable and needs to be fixed immediately.

It appears that many Ohioans who need food stamps are being denied them through no fault of their own. And by eliminating software portals for food bank workers who used to assist low-income and elderly Ohioans in getting food stamp (SNAP) benefits to which they’re entitled, the system has also eliminated an important fail-safe.

Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration didn’t create this mess. But the new governor needs to step in and press the reset button to make sure needy Ohioans aren’t shut out of the food aid they urgently require.

The new set-up is called the Ohio Benefits System. It started in 2014 for Medicaid applications and, when fully phased in, is predicted to cost Ohio and the federal government $539 million. It supplants an earlier system, CRIS-E (the Client Registry Information System-Enhanced), whose own lengthy implementation was not without headaches.

Reporter Andrew J. Tobias of cleveland.com found that the Benefits System is not just making it harder for eligible Ohioans to obtain and continue to receive,food assistance, but also, based on a cleveland.com analysis, appears to be having a disproportionate impact, based on year-over-year declines, in some rural and urban counties. 

Some of the problems are technical glitches that can be fixed, but others appear to require a rethinking of how the system operates when it comes to low-income, elderly or rural Ohioans who lack easy access to electronic filing. 

Among other glitches identified by Tobias: Misaddressed notices have resulted in the denial of food-stamp benefits to applicants eligible to receive them. Relying on an automated system also makes it tougher for poor Ohioans, older Ohioans, or people living in regions with scanty broadband coverage to apply or reapply – as they must, every six months.

Used to be, clients reapplied with a caseworker. No more. Now it’s a “system” task.

Rejections have climbed -- but because the system is so flawed, it is not clear if that is because incomes rose – or because eligible clients were wrongly cut off.

Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services acknowledges the system’s problems, but suggests -- without providing data to back that up -- that missteps by county Job and Family Services caseworkers spawned the biggest problems. For an automated system, however, the reporting is surprisingly deficient, so, as Tobias noted in his story, it’s unclear what is really causing the declines.

Whatever the reasons, Ohioans are going hungry through no fault of their own, and right now it’s impossible to figure out if or to what extent the new Benefits System is the cause.

That is something Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration needs to fix – now.

About our editorials: Editorials express the view of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer -- the senior leadership and editorial-writing staff. As is traditional, editorials are unsigned and intended to be seen as the voice of the news organization.  

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