PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Department of Human Services has been incorrectly calculating food stamp benefits by assuming some beneficiaries earn just $1 per week, Target 12 has learned.
It is one of the findings unearthed by the federal government during a recent on-site visit to DHS offices, and it is the latest in a three-year saga of failures related to the state’s UHIP computer system.
According to a letter dated Oct. 4, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) said it found several cases where the state failed to correctly calculate a household’s net income for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
“In some cases, a workaround was used to add a ‘place holder’ to the budget while a case pended due to missing verifications,” Bonnie Brathwaite, the director of SNAP for the northeast, wrote. “In these cases an entry of $1.00 was added to the case in order for the system to generate a request for documentation from the client. Benefits were issued with the eligibility calculation with the $1.00 per week figure.”
Alisha Pina, a spokesperson for DHS, was not able to say how many times the $1 workaround has been used, or how much it has cost taxpayers in benefits overpayments.
“We would need more time to research how often this workaround has been used, but we do know its use is inconsistent across case processing and not supported in any policy guidance,” Pina said in an email. “We are trying to narrow down the staff who may still be using this workaround, and for how long.”
The feds flagged a slew of additional problems within the system, which were also outlined in Brathwaite’s letter:
- DHS is not in compliance with federal records retention requirements
- Notice of Eligibility does not conform to Federal regulations
- Failure to follow appropriate interview procedure at recertification
- Potential intentional program violation cases are not being referred to the Fraud Unit
The letter also noted several issues that have been successfully corrected or issues that were identified, but could not be validated.
“During the visit, FNS conducted a historical sample of cases that resulted in finding many issues that have since been resolved,” Pina said. “In DHS’ subsequent response to these findings, we will clarify how we have remedied some of these issues and request that the findings be closed.”
“Any outstanding system or training issues are being tracked and prioritized for future improvements,” Pina added.
Rhode Island’s updated semi-annual corrective action plan is due Nov. 1.
As Target 12 reported in August, FNS levied a $2 million fine against the state for food stamp errors, a majority of which were overpayments of benefits.
Rhode Island is appealing the fine, and both sides have requested an extension, according to Pina.
State officials have emphasized that Deloitte, the company that built UHIP, must pay any federal fines levied due to problems with the system.
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 to the Department of Human Services, and long lines at DHS field offices.
At last check the system was expected to cost taxpayers $656 million over 10 years, despite an original promise that it would pay for itself by 2018 though the elimination of waste and fraud.