DHR is working to reduce food stamp application backlog

Your article of March 15, "State further behind handling food stamps, medical benefits" does not convey the sense of urgency the Department of Human Resources has placed on processing applications and eliminating backlogs or the progress we have made as a result.

We have always been forthcoming with our efforts to address what we consider a major issue for those who depend on food stamp and medical assistance support. Long before the December 10, 2009 ruling by Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams, the department had developed and begun implementing a plan to move us in the right direction. I am surprised by the plaintiffs' assertions that our plan does not go far enough, especially since they accepted our invitation to review an outline of the plan and sat down with us for a detailed discussion of our proposed strategies. We extended this invitation to provide them with an opportunity to offer realistic suggestions regarding improvements. We were disappointed that their comments were not more constructive.

Your article mentions the status of applications three months after Judge Williams' ruling. What it does not make clear is the considerable progress that has been made during that time frame to clear up the tremendous amount of backlogged applications. For instance, in Baltimore County where the issue was the most severe, we have seen a decrease in the backlog from 7,775 applications in December 2009 to fewer than 2,000 today. As a result, our compliance rate numbers would appear to be worse, as the lower rates are directly tied to the massive clean-up effort -- an unavoidable issue that was clearly explained to the plaintiffs' counsel.

Recognizing that this was not an issue unique to Baltimore County, we conducted an assessment to identify other problem areas across the state. We identified five jurisdictions that were experiencing severe challenges and developed customized corrective action plans to address their needs. As a result, the number of backlogged applications statewide (not including Baltimore County) have been whittled down from 8,416 on December 4, 2009 to 590 as of March 5. We employed several strategies including hiring temporary clerical staff and approving a massive overtime project in our efforts to eliminate the backlogs. Fortunately, we have been able to utilize federal dollars to offset the costs incurred. In addition, we have been able to rapidly hire and refill 81 vacant positions since December.

The department has always made it clear that there are no instant fixes, and the sheer demand for services continues to be an ongoing issue. However, it is worth reiterating that most of our efforts were not begun as a result of the court ruling. We have been engaged in system improvements for some time now, including information technology purchases, system upgrades and regulation changes.

Gov. Martin O'Malley shares our sense of urgency around this matter. He receives weekly progress updates from me as well as bi-weekly status updates from staff, as this continues to be a primary focus during StateStat reporting.

Just as we have reached out to the plaintiffs, we have also shared our plan with federal partners and invited their suggestions for improvements. When we received the ruling in December, I said that I recognized the challenges that were before us but believed we had the right strategies in place to move toward compliance. I stand by that statement. As the state's safety net for vulnerable Marylanders, we are committed to doing all we can to serve those who depend on us.

Brenda H. Donald, Baltimore

The writer is secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

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