CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) - Rhode Island processed 96% of food stamps applications on time in October, reaching a court-mandated benchmark for the first time since the state launched the problem-plagued UHIP computer system, Target 12 has learned.
"The achievement of this goal helps us achieve all of our other state goals," R.I. Department of Human Services Director Courtney Hawkins said in an interview. "Kids can’t learn in school if they’re hungry, and so ensuring families have access to reliable benefits to help them feed their families is really, really critical."
UHIP - short for the Unified Health Infrastructure Project - was supposed to streamline state-run benefits programs in Rhode Island, including SNAP benefits for food. It experienced major failures after launching in September 2016, and the effort to fix it has taken years.
The problems led the ACLU to sue the DHS in federal court in late 2016 over delayed SNAP benefits. Under the terms of a settlement, the state is required to process 96% of SNAP applications within federally mandated timeframes.
This past October, DHS reached the 96% timeliness benchmark for the first time — a stark difference from the previous November, when only 55% of SNAP applications were processed on time.
"To go from 55% to 96% is a huge accomplishment," Hawkins said.
The number dipped slightly the following month, however, decreasing to 95% in November. The December figure has not yet been released.
"I think that there will be small ups and downs because the level of perfection we have to achieve is pretty significant," Hawkins said. "But I think the technology and the operational improvements we’ve made will allow us to very safely be around that benchmark into the future."
Nearly 160,000 Rhode Islanders receive benefits through SNAP, previously known as food stamps.
Deming Sherman, the court-appointed special master who was tasked with overseeing the SNAP fixes, outlined the progress in a recent report to the judge.
"The objective now is to maintain the timeliness percentages, which I am confident that DHS has both the technology and ability to do," Sherman wrote.
"My role as special master is becoming that of a monitor, since I think that all the pieces are in place for DHS to maintain compliance with the consent agreement," he added.