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ConsumerWatch: New System Delays Calif. Food Stamp Applications

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Man shopping for groceries. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Man shopping for groceries. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) — A new system of processing applications for food stamps is leaving some Californians hungry, and waiting longer than they should for their benefits.

“Susan,” an unemployed food stamp applicant from Santa Clara County, contacted CBS 5 ConsumerWatch last week to ask for help with the problem.

She says she applied for the government’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as Food Stamps, back in late August. As of Christmas, four months later, she still had not received the benefits.

Susan said when she called Social Services to check on the status of her benefits, she did not get a response. “I couldn’t get any interaction with (the Department of Social Services),” Susan told ConsumerWatch. “I would get stuck on hold, for hours at a time, literally.”

“It’s been a problem,” said Jan Picolorich, Asst. Director of Employment Benefits and Services for Santa Clara County.

Picolorich told ConsumerWatch a number of changes were taking place in her department simultaneously, leading to processing delays. “A number of people did get overlooked,” she said. She called Susan’s four-month delay an “anomaly.”

The changes, which went into effect last May, include a new intake system that allows clients to apply for benefits online. Picolorich said the biggest change is that the phone system is now run like a call center, where the first available case worker assists applicants. Under the old system, the same case worker dealt with a client from start to finish.

“It’s been a huge learning curve for clients and staff and one of the most challenging aspects has been the uncertainty of the workflow,” Picolorich said.

Picolorich said the changes were implemented at one of the busiest periods in her department’s history. She said 6,000 new food stamp applications are pouring in each month.

Advocates for the poor say the Santa Clara County’s problem is not unique. They estimate there could be thousands of processing problems in the 18 counties utilizing the new system.

Stephen Goldberg of Legal Services of Northern California said he heard of dozens of complaints about delays in food stamp processing in Sacramento County as well.

Federal law requires states and counties to process non-emergency food stamp applications within 30 days. Applicants who encounter delays longer than 30 days can request a hearing. If it’s determined the delay is not the applicant’s fault, the applicant is entitled to retroactive benefits dating back to the date he or she first applied, according to Goldberg.

Susan finally did get help after ConsumerWatch became involved. Last week, she received four months worth of food stamps, totaling about $800.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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