Courier-Journal (Indiana), July 27, 2008: Needy Hoosiers struggle to get aid

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By Lesley Stedman Weidenbener and Grace Schneider
The Courier-Journal

Some of Southern Indiana’s neediest residents are struggling to get food stamps and other government aid because of problems with the state’s new privatized eligibility system, advocates for the poor say.

The problems have led to increased demand at area food banks, while workers at some social service organizations say they’re swamped with pleas for help filling out the necessary forms for government benefits.

“I certainly understand what the state is trying to do, but what we’re finding is that there’s lots of kinks,” said Pamela Cotton, vice president of New Hope Services in Jeffersonville. “What I hear from case managers is that (the system) takes an awfully long time and is not very user-friendly.”

It was supposed to be just the opposite — fast and easy to use.

The automated system — which the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration calls a pilot program — is being rolled out gradually across the state and is meant to provide poor Hoosiers with more opportunity to get help while eliminating fraud and mistakes that plagued the old system.

Through a $1.16 billion, 10-year state contract with IBM Corp., Affiliated Computer Services Inc. and other companies, needy Hoosiers can apply for Medicaid, food stamps, health insurance and other programs by phone or online, eliminating face-to-face meetings with caseworkers.

“Our goal here is to provide the highest quality service to those in need, ensuring to taxpayers that their dollars are being used effectively,” Family and Social Services Secretary Mitch Roob said.

Roob insists the system is working, although not as well as it should. More people are signed up for services now than a year ago before the rollout began, he said.

But some clients — who may be disabled, sick or elderly and have disabilities or little education — tell social-service workers they’re confused by the system’s phone and Internet options and miss the time when they could develop personal relationships with local caseworkers.

“I think they need to assess what’s happening in human terms,” said Shirley Raymond, executive director of Harrison County Community Services.

Turning elsewhere for assistance

Raymond is not alone in her concern. The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana has sued the state, claiming in part that it is cutting off aid to poor Hoosiers for minor paperwork problems.

The state legislature’s Medicaid oversight panel has planned public hearings to take testimony on the issue, starting with a meeting Thursday in Kokomo.

Roob’s agency, meantime, is planning a series of open-house meetings, including one in New Albany on Aug. 21, to let Hoosiers talk about their experiences with the new system.

Meanwhile, confused clients are turning to a volunteer network of social-service organizations whose staffs are providing the kind of help that used to be available at county welfare offices.

Sherian McLendon, director of family support services for the New Albany Housing Authority, said the agency joined the network out of concern that residents wouldn’t get the help they needed.

“We work in public housing so we have the poorest of all, and most all of our residents get food stamps and Medicaid,” she said. “So when they lose their benefits they get behind on their rent. It’s like a domino effect.”

Gladys Burton, 70, who moved with her two young granddaughters to New Albany from Louisville in March, was among those who needed help.

Burton said she called the state’s toll-free number to apply for aid by phone but struggled with the options and questions. So she turned to the Family Self-Sufficiency Center run by the housing authority at Parkview Terrace homes where she lives.

“I really had a bad experience,” Burton said. “I went March, April, May and June without anything. There I was with my two grandkids and no food stamps coming in.”

Burton said she relied on food pantries and handouts until she was approved.

Phone waits

Harrison County Community Services, a food pantry and social-service agency in Corydon, saw a 66 percent increase in food-assistance requests in the first half of this year from the same period last year.

Raymond blames the state system, saying people were forced to seek temporary help after their government benefits were delayed or canceled.

Many clients complain they can’t call a local office to ask a question, she said. And when they call the toll-free number, they’re put on hold for long periods, often burning up prepaid cell phone minutes.

Patsy Bullington, 73, a former factory worker, had her brother drive her several times to the Crawford County help center, but no one there could answer her questions about getting recertified for Medicaid. She said they let her use the phone to call the state line, but she was put on hold for more than an hour.

Roob did not dispute that some clients have long phone waits. But the average wait the week of July 14, for example, was four minutes, although it was twice as long that Monday, the busiest day of the week.

“Remember, these are people who used to have to get in the car and drive to the county office,” Roob said. “The cost of gas, the cost of that time is significant. All in all, from door to door, you’re spending less time in this system than you were in the old system.”

But Christine Harbeson, executive director at the Interfaith Community Council, a New Albany-based food bank and area ministry, said state officials are ignoring the fact that many clients don’t read or communicate well, so they struggle with the automated system.

“We’re hurting those who don’t have a choice,” Harbeson said.

Reporter Lesley Stedman Weidenbener can be reached at (317) 444-2780.

Reporter Grace Schneider can be reached at (812) 949-4040.

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