Friday, July 17, 2009

One Houstonian's experience with the Texas HHS failure

Reposting in its entirety:


The Texas Health and Human Services Commission is a disaster. They fail to the needs of the people they are to serve, and indeed increase the pain and difficulty those people are having. There are so many problems with this agency that it is difficult to know where to begin. But I’ll start with my knowledge of problems in the administration of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

For the uninitiated, this is the program colloquially known as Food Stamps. They fail to process applications or renewals in accordance to laws and are having the people wait months for an interview. The agency is strikingly unresponsive. Now in July, they are making appointments to interview people in September that applied or should have been renewed and the Food Stamps delivered in June.

This is not what was intended when the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 authorized USDA to award $5 million in grants for state and local government and private non-profit organization projects aimed at simplifying the SNAP application and eligibility systems or improving access to SNAP benefits by eligible households.

You may ask how am I qualified to berate the Health and Human Services Commission in the Great State of Texas. I have had to become familiar with Texas HHS and the nightmare that agency is. If you take a little bank fraud, employment outsourced to other countries, some health problems w/no insurance and reach the age where nobody wants to hire you, all you have to do is stir. You have the perfect recipe for personal financial disaster.

I moved to Houston because I had family here. Shortly after I moved here, my sister’s husband was transferred, and now I’m the only one who can care for my 89-year-old mom. This is my first diary, and I’m coming out of the Food-Stamp Closet with this story in hopes that I can bring awareness to the problems faced by so many here. I petition anyone reading this to join me in bringing attention to the problems in that agency and to work towards making things better for the many who have no voice.

By my experience, I can tell you:

The public web site doesn’t work. I called Information, 211, and they steered me to the Internet to apply for benefits. I did so, and two months later I spent days and dealt with people all over the state, looking for the status of my application. The application showed on the web as having been submitted, but no one could tell me the status. I spoke to people in Midland, several in Austin, and several in Houston. The final verdict was that my app must have gone into a black hole in their system, as the system didn’t handle applications from Harris County yet. Then why was I sent to this system? And why did this system accept my application when one of the first questions I answered was "County"? What kind system is built so that "records in" aren’t tracked and accounted for? And if there is an error that the system is unable to process, why was three no error message and the requestor not notified?

They cannot process mail. An example of how poorly they handle any mail is a notice I have before me right now, (because I needed to reference it) and the envelope it came in. The notice was dated June 30th and it came in an envelope postmarked July 8th. Personally, I believe the postmark. I’ve learned to save the envelopes because I suspect this particular problem is a deliberate attempt to make applicants fail their response times. Clients have time limits to respond, and if it takes eight days for a notice to get from someone’s out-box to the Post Office, the client can miss their deadlines and loose their benefits. I’ve also taken to sending mail Certified (this is a hefty cost to someone on food stamps). While they can’t deny getting the mail when you have a receipt, I have found that it failed to speed delivery to the recipient (i.e., Post Office" signed for date" does not mean that the recipient got it (or the worker fibbed to me about when it got to their desk)), nor does sending it Certified have any time impact on having the contents processed.

Their phone system is a dreadful. Do you like to wade through a phone tree and wait for a long time listening to messages repeated, to be disconnected and have to start all over? How about when you finally get a person and explain your problem they transfer you to a line that asks for your FAX number to continue? (This was a new one for me. I’ve had a phone tree problem on other phone systems, but HHS’s has been the only phone system I’ve encountered to throw me out because I didn’t have a FAX number.) If you’re wondering why phones are important, consider that Houston is a big place. I live in the northwest area but I’m assigned to an office in the southeast. This is equivalent to having someone in the Bronx go to Brooklyn or someone in Queens sent to Staten Island, except that New Yorkers have a public transportation system that Houstonians don’t.

They do not send notices to claimants even when benefits are ending. They don’t follow normal business etiquette and provide information to clients by mail or phone when there is a major change and frequently don’t reply to the clients at all. I sent one certified letter that never been replied to at all. No letter. No call. Nada. I appealed a decision and got the same treatment: Nothing. I ask, " Is this any way to run a railroad?"

From the start the experience is humiliating. If you can manage to get your application processed you are fingerprinted and they share your personal data with law enforcement agencies. Barbara Ehrinreich, from her op-ed A Homespun Safety Net published in the NYT July 12, says this is making it hazardous for anyone who might have an outstanding warrant — for failing to show up for a court hearing on an unpaid debt, for example — to apply.

Then they check and check and check. Everything you tell them they check. How many times do you have to submit your social security benefits statement and your apartment lease? The answer is: every time they ask for it. The redundant paperwork is incredible.

Right now I’m trying to fix their failure to renew my case in June and this is a rerun of what happened last year. In December 2008, I mailed my renewal info as requested but my case was not processed. In January I started pleading for help as my account was not credited. No notice. Nothing. Just no credit to the account, the same as this time. It took a while before I could get any action, and when I did, they cut my benefits greatly. I had just spent $11.31 in postage to send all the paper they demanded!

I appealed the reduction in benefits. And I suppose I lost. I say suppose, because after the insane "hearing" by phone, which is a horrendous story by itself, I never received the result, which should have been sent by mail. I was told in a month or so. (I could go further into the appeal, but I’ll limit my discussion here).

I’m fortunate in that I can tell the story and point the finger because most of those in need cannot. Many of the people here have nowhere else to go except to the Texas HHS and have no voice at all. It’s not like you can take your need to another agency. Poverty itself can deplete and strain entire social networks, leaving no one to turn to. When the poor get no help, they are forced in a further downward spiral, often falling for the rip-offs of ‘payroll and quick auto loans’ that they can never get paid off. They are the most vulnerable and they suffer the most from many scams. If they can’t pay their credit card, the banks slam them and their car insurance goes up. If they don’t get their food stamps they may not have the cash for a haircut to go on the job interview they worked hard to get.

As the national recession persists and our federal government is striving to help people caught in it, Governor Perry and most of Texas’ Republican lawmakers work overtime to set up barriers to any help that’s made available. Senator John Cornyn voted against the SCHIP program (health insurance for low-income children). I can never understand how the Republicans, who care so much for the unborn, have no heart when it comes to children who are here. Perry refused the federal assistance to the unemployed. He should be ashamed of his record and the punitive bureaucracy he is in charge of, but he’s not.

It’s true, Texans likes to brag. But for those who can face the truth, the quixotic becomes brutal. Eliot Shapleigh, a state senator from El Paso, compiles a report each legislative session called Texas on the Brink (.pdf). Shapleigh's little book of horrors comes fully footnoted to avoid being attacked by partisans. His staff gathers data from the Census Bureau and Texas government agencies. Skimming it will provide more than enough data to show where the Republican leadership, which so proudly brags about its governance, has brought the state. Here are a few of Shapleigh's tidbits about Texas that Rick Perry doesn't want the rest of the nation to know:

  1. 49th in teacher pay
  1. 1st in the percentage of people over 25 without a high school diploma
  1. 41st in high school graduation rate
  1. 46th in SAT scores
  1. 1st in percentage of uninsured children
  1. 1st in percentage of population uninsured
  1. 1st in percentage of non-elderly uninsured
  1. 3rd in percentage of people living below the poverty level
  1. 49th in average Women Infant and Children benefit payments
  1. 1st in teenage birth rate
  1. 50th in average credit scores for loan applicants
  1. 1st in air pollution emissions
  1. 1st in volume of volatile organic compounds released into the air
  1. 1st in amount of toxic chemicals released into water
  1. 1st in amount of recognized cancer-causing carcinogens released into air
  1. 1st in amount of carbon dioxide emissions
  1. 50th in homeowners' insurance affordability
  1. 50th in percentage of voting age population that votes
  1. 1st in annual number of executions

Given these numbers, need I explain?

There are a lot of Texans that need help. If you qualify for food stamps you should be able to get them. The state government should be held accountable.

The Houston Chronicle reported that our lawmakers cleaned out the public schools’ piggy bank so it could replace it with federal stimulus money in Stimulus, or better yet, status quo.

Note that Texas is last in voter participation of all the states. Now try to square this with the fact that the Republicans spent much of their effort during the last legislative session working on a bill to make voting more difficult, (to require Voter ID). Should they really work so hard to defend their position of dead last?

Sometimes you need a laugh.

Nick Anderson, editorial cartoonist for the Houston Chronicle, did one of his toons about it: He has a crossing guard stopping Traffic so that a Mother Duck and her little duckies can cross the road. While allowing a string of ducks to cross the road is normally a kind, humanitarian act to be admired, Nick’s crossing guard is a big elephant, holding his hand up to stop Emergency Trucks "Children’s Health Insurance", "Windstorm Insurance Reform" and "Unemployment Benefits", so that V (momma duck) could lead the little ducklings o,t,e,r—I,d across the street.

In the same Off the Wall vein he did one of an angry looking Nancy Pelosi sitting behind a desk piled high with stacks of Budget, Health Care, Economy, etc. papers, saying," Beat it!", with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in the background grandstanding a ‘Congressional Resolution Honoring Michael Jackson’, with her own portable spotlights.

In yet another, he has Perry slurping stimulus funds out of a straw while pushing an unemployed back with, "STOP, It’s Tainted".

To quote Barbara Ehrinreich from the article cited above:

So far, despite some temporary expansions of food stamps and unemployment benefits by the Obama administration, the recession has done for the government safety net pretty much what Hurricane Katrina did for the Federal Emergency Management Agency: it’s demonstrated that you can be clinging to your roof with the water rising, and no one may come to helicopter you out.
Even the help that has been sent doesn’t make it to the citizens of Texas. That’s due to a state government that undermines it and sets up roadblocks to its use. And if Texas doesn’t address its Health and Human Services problems fast, things are going to get a lot worse.

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