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ACLU sues RI over alleged UHIP-related food stamp violations

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Department of Human Services is facing a new legal battle over alleged violations of food stamp regulations.

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the agency’s director, Courtney Hawkins, claiming DHS is not sending proper notice to recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) who apparently owe money to the state for benefits overpayments.

According to the lawsuit, Carmen Correa received a letter demanding the repayment of $1,925 in SNAP benefits for food, which she received in 2014 and 2015 for herself and her 13-year-old niece.

Correa was told she would face cuts to her benefits if she did not sign a payment agreement with the state, according to the lawsuit.

“Because her monthly income consists of only the $150 in child support and the SNAP benefits, any reduction of SNAP benefits will be harmful for both Plaintiff and her niece,” the lawsuit argued.

DHS told Correa the overpayment was an “agency error,” but according to the lawsuit, the letter did not identify the cause of the alleged overpayment or explain how it was calculated.

Federal regulations require initial demand letters for repayment of benefits to include several pieces of information including the reason for the claim and how it was calculated.

The ACLU says that information is critical for people to receive, given the state’s track record with the benefits eligibility computer system known as UHIP.

UHIP, short for Unified Health Infrastructure Project, launched in September 2016 and was supposed to streamline benefits like Medicaid, food stamps and child-care assistance for hundreds of thousands of Rhode Islanders. Almost immediately after the launch, users reported missing benefits, hours-long call wait times and long lines at DHS field offices.

“With DHS now seeking to recoup payments that were made years ago – back to 2014 for Carmen Correa – it is extremely important that the agency provide SNAP recipients the reason for the overpayment and how it was calculated,” said Ellen Saiderman, an attorney representing Correa.

“That knowledge will help SNAP recipients know if the agency has made another error and incorrectly determined an overpayment, and if they can contest the overpayment,” Saiderman added.

According to the ACLU, 400 letters demanding repayment have been sent. It is unclear how much the state may have overpaid in food stamps.

Steven Brown, the executive director of the ACLU of R.I., called it “distressing” for the state to demand repayment using incomplete information.

“This is intolerably unfair and unacceptable, and we are hopeful the court agrees,” Brown said in a statement.

Hawkins said she believes DHS is in compliance with federal rules.

“DHS has worked closely with our federal partners, community organizations and content experts to ensure that our efforts to meet federal requirements for overpayment collections are successful,” she said. “I am disappointed that the ACLU decided that litigation was the best course of action to resolve their concerns as the department has been open for feedback throughout this process.”

“We are confident that our claims process is compliant with applicable regulations and look forward to resolution of this lawsuit,” Hawkins added.

This is the third UHIP-related lawsuit the ACLU has filed against the state. Almost a year ago, the ACLU reached a settlement with the state in a lawsuit that alleged some Medicaid recipients lost coverage without adequate notice. In October, the organization dropped a nearly three-year-old lawsuit against the state over alleged food stamp delays.

Susan Campbell (scampbell@wpri.com) is the Call 12 for Action and Target 12 consumer investigator for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

In-Depth Coverage: UHIP

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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