The Baker administration said it will have to spend millions of dollars to repair a food stamp computer system that has continued to unfairly deny thousands of elderly, disabled, and working poor their food stamp benefits — a situation officials called horrible.
The $35 million system was rolled out last year, and the Patrick administration gave assurances that it was running properly in late December, after early trouble with processing food stamps arose.
But problems have persisted, as the system mistakenly closed thousands of food stamp accounts, leaving people at grocery stores with baskets of food they were unable to pay for when their cards were rejected.
“It’s an embarrassment,” said the state’s Health and Human Services secretary, Marylou Sudders.
The issue has gotten little public attention in recent months, but those in state government have been well aware of it.
“I’m most acutely troubled that elderly and disabled [people] are going to bed hungry,” said Jeff McCue, commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance, who was appointed by Governor Charlie Baker last month.
Administration officials said the problems appear to be complex and won’t be solved quickly. In an April 27 letter to the US Department of Agriculture, Sudders laid out a plan that includes hiring 73 new caseworkers and a consultant to review the system, and creating an ombudsman’s office to field complaints. The state will also upgrade the agency’s outdated phone system and pay overtime to workers coming in on Saturdays to help fix problems, including review of a backlog of 100,000 documents.
The cost of these measures: about $4 million.
McCue said the system was not adequately tested or vetted before it was rolled out publicly on Oct. 27. He added it was hard for him to dine at night in the comfort of his home in Weymouth, knowing the system has left people stranded without money for food.
Food stamp recipients are the latest group affected by chronic breakdowns in newly automated systems created to streamline and improve government services. In 2013, the administration of Governor Deval Patrick disastrously launched an online system to manage unemployment benefits that resulted in thousands of problems for jobless workers whose benefits were delayed or erroneously cut.
That was followed by the 2013 software failure of the Massachusetts Health Connector, which left people unable to access health coverage.
The problems with the food stamp program began last year when the state decided to upgrade the way food stamps are managed under pressure from the Department of Agriculture. The USDA oversees the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and in a settlement with the state, the Patrick administration agreed to invest $30.2 million to modernize its computer system and fix longstanding problems with paperwork backlogs.
The new system, however, began cutting off people who were entitled to benefits.
Jessica Rolls stood at the grocery checkout of a Stop & Shop in Wareham last month with her 4-month-old when the cashier told her the debit card that typically holds $346 in food stamps a month for her family had a zero balance.
Mortified, the 30-year-old walked away from a cart of bagged groceries. When she called the state several times, desperate to try to resolve the problem, she couldn’t get through. A recording told her over and over that the phone lines were busy and disconnected her call.
Rolls said she and her husband, an unemployed roofer, lived on chicken nuggets from their freezer and sandwiches a relative bought for them. It took four days of nervous waiting before the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, a legal advocacy group in Boston, intervened and had her benefits restored.
“We were down to the nitty-gritty,” Rolls said. “I’ve been through the wringer with this.”
Victoria Negus, the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute staffer who helped Rolls, said there are thousands of similar cases across the state. She said she was encouraged by the Baker administration’s efforts to fix the system, but impatient because problems have persisted.
“It has to get dealt with,” Negus said.
Last fall, Patrick administration officials denied the system had problems. Advocates for the poor noted that the number of food stamp recipients fell dramatically — far more sharply than the national average. But Stacey Monahan, former commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance and onetime executive director of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, insisted it had nothing to do with the rollout.
“The new system is working,” Monahan said in December, about a month before she left the job and the Baker administration took over.
She could not be reached for comment.
Sudders, who was appointed by Baker in January, said: “We have failed to transition from our old business practices to our new business practices in a smooth way. It’s horrible.”
McCue said the agency currently faces a backlog of 100,000 documents that were filed by food stamp recipients and are in need of review by the agency. Part of the problem is that cases in which documents were not reviewed can be automatically closed in the new system. McCue said it remains unclear exactly how many of the cases were improperly closed.
Sudders said some of the cost of the newly hired case workers will be offset by early retirements from the agency.
Many food stamp recipients have also been wrongly denied benefits as a result of the new system’s fraud prevention efforts. The newly automated system matched food stamp users with income information from the state Department of Revenue in an attempt to root out fraud.
The effort created more problems when thousands of people who worked limited hours or minimally — such as election poll workers — were flagged by the system and cut off from benefits. They were unable to reach anyone on state call-in lines.
Sudders suspended that portion of the program earlier this year, requiring those cases to be reviewed manually by a caseworker.
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.