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RI races to meet Oct. 31 deadline to eliminate food stamp backlog

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island is down to the wire to meet a federal deadline to eliminate a backlog of food stamp cases.

The backlog is supposed to be eliminated by Oct. 31, after the federal government granted the state an extension in June.

Alisha Pina, a spokesperson for DHS, was not able to provide a yes or no answer when asked whether the backlog had been eliminated by Thursday.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Pina said “the state believes we are on track to meet the backlog elimination targets identified in the letter.”

In a letter dated Oct. 3, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) said the state was still sitting on 1,671 overdue unprocessed recertifications and 1,194 overdue unprocessed interim reports for SNAP benefits for food.

“While the State has made progress in addressing the overall document backlog since the implementation of RIBridges, the backlog numbers have remained static recently,” Bonnie Brathwaite, the director of SNAP for the northeast, wrote.

RIBridges is more commonly known as UHIP, the Unified Health Infrastructure Project. The system launched in 2016 and was supposed to streamline programs like SNAP, Medicaid, and child care assistance. Almost immediately after the launch, users reported issues including missing benefits. 

The Oct. 3 letter from FNS also revealed a the state has a payment error rate of 21% and a case and procedural error rate of 42% for SNAP cases.

“The State policy, training, and field office leadership must implement corrective actions to address these high error rates,” Brathwaite said.

It’s unclear how much those errors have cost taxpayers in potential benefits overpayments.

Rep. Patricia Serpa, who chairs the R.I. House Oversight Committee, said the federal government’s findings are “maddening.”

“We’re three years into this system now,” Serpa told Target 12. “How patient do we think that the feds are going to continue to be with us? My guess is not very patient for very much longer.”

As Target 12 reported Wednesday, another letter from the feds showed DHS has been incorrectly calculating food stamp benefits by assuming some beneficiaries earn just $1 per week.

FNS said the $1 per week figure was used as a “workaround” when cases were pending due to missing verifications.

Pina said the workaround is not “supported in any policy guidance.”

“These workarounds are just another way to deceive us and the feds that things are going well when clearly they are not,” Serpa said in a social media post. “It’s all a sham.”

Serpa also told Target 12 she believes the workaround will prove to be costly.

“My guess is that some of those people that DHS identified as eligible are not eligible,” she said. “You know as well as I do we’ll never get that back. We’ll never get a dime of that money back.”

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.

At last check UHIP was expected to cost taxpayers $656 million over 10 years, despite an original promise that the system would pay for itself by 2018 though the elimination of waste and fraud.

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.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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