After three years of intense scrutiny, a Baltimore judge has decided that the state had done enough to get poor Marylanders signed up quickly for food stamps, medical help and cash assistance — a decision that has advocates for the poor worried that the problems will return.
The Department of Human Resources hailed Thursday's ruling by Circuit Judge Barry Williams, which found the state was processing nearly all of its applications within the time allowed by law — typically 30 days after an application is submitted.
Advocates for the poor applaud the progress but are worried that without the pressure of the lawsuit, the state won't keep pace with the demand, and people will be back to waiting more than a month to receive the benefits.
Debra Gardner, legal director for the Public Justice Center, one of the groups that filed the court action in 2009, said the state has relied on staff overtime and other stopgap measures to process the applications on time. The judge should not have dissolved the case before the Human Resources Department had a permanent solution, she said.
"They have antiquated case-management software," Gardner said. "We're really concerned that they still haven't put in place all of the things they told the court in the corrective action plan would allow them to sustain the level of achievement."
Gardner said the advocates have not decided whether they will appeal the ruling.
The case, filed in April 2009, centered on the amount of time it took Miracyle Thompson to receive food stamps. Thompson, a Baltimore County resident, skipped meals while she was pregnant so her two sons, who have sickle cell disease, could eat. A second woman, Earline Augustus-El, later joined Thompson in the suit.
Ted Dallas, secretary for the Human Resources Department, said the state has been able to process at least 96 percent of the benefit applications on time for 19 consecutive months.
"Processing these applications on time helps ensure that thousands of Marylanders can put food on the table, a roof over their head and have access to health care," Dallas said. "It is our responsibility to continue to process these applications promptly — the people that we serve expect and are entitled to no less from us."
Dallas credited the hard work of thousands of agency employees, and he acknowledged that staff overtime has helped the state process the enrollments on time. Overtime, however, was not the only factor, Dallas said. Annual investments in software upgrades and new equipment, such as technology to allow electric storage of personal records, have allowed the agency to do its job better, he said.
Of the total money the department spent on salaries and benefits in 2009, 0.23 percent was on overtime. That percentage grew to 1.31 percent in 2010; 3.62 percent in 2011; and 4.76 percent in 2012. The total cost of the overtime wasn't immediately available Friday.
The agency operates on a $2.6 billion annual budget and processes about 1 million benefit applications a year, Dallas said.
The number of people receiving the benefits increased sharply over the past several years. For example, the food stamp program provided benefits to an average of 424,000 families each month in 2009, 535,000 in 2010 and 645,000 in 2011.
In December 2009, the judge gave the state a year to raise the rate at which it processed applications within 30 days or less from 83.5 percent. After Maryland hit the original benchmark, the court issued an injunction that required continued compliance and a monthly progress report to the Public Justice Center and the other groups that were party to the lawsuit.
Around the time the court case was filed, 7,100 applications for medical assistance for children and families were backlogged and 4,100 food stamp requests were overdue.
Gardner said the state deserves credit for getting the applications processed on time. Without the looming court case, though, Gardner said she's worried that the Human Resources Department won't receive the OK to continue paying overtime. The agency shares some of its staffing decisions with the state Department of Budget and Management.
"We're very worried the resources will dry up and they will not be able to maintain compliance," Gardner said.