LINCOLN, Nebraska — Facing a federal lawsuit and an investigation by lawmakers, Nebraska state officials say they're close to catching up on a backlog of public benefit applications.
Senators were already scrutinizing ACCESS Nebraska, a state service that allows people to apply for and renew their public benefits online or by phone.
Attention on the program increased earlier this month when two advocacy groups sued the state in federal court, alleging that Nebraska has failed to process applications in the time required by law. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a single mother in Lincoln who waited more than a month for the state to renew her public food benefits.
Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Russ Reno said the agency expects to have all of the delayed paperwork finished by late October or early November. Reno said the department has approved overtime for workers and has shuffled their duties so that employees in local DHHS offices can focus more on new applications, which take longer to process than renewals.
"We are very confident we will be able to address the backlog issues and are planning so we can maintain timeliness," Reno said.
The lawsuit alleges the Department of Health and Human Services has moved too slowly to process applications and renewals for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. Federal regulations require states to process applications within 30 days but, according to the lawsuit, more than 30 percent of SNAP applications received by the state weren't processed in that timeframe in federal fiscal year 2013.
Lawmakers also formed a special committee earlier this year to investigate ACCESS Nebraska, in response to continued public complaints that began in 2008. The committee could provide lawmakers and the department with additional recommendations to fix the service, said Sen. Annette Dubas, who is leading the Legislature's investigation.
While the investigation isn't complete, Dubas said she believes the problems stem from a lack of resources, infrastructure to deliver the services, and training for staff. The committee has scheduled a Sept. 18 hearing to gather additional information. Dubas, who leaves office in January due to term limits, said senators and the next governor will likely have to keep working on ACCESS Nebraska.
"I think the lawsuit highlights that there are still problems," she said. "We aren't going to get them fixed until we really dig into it and figure out all of the components — what's working and what's not. The problem is big, and so far we've taken little incremental steps at improving them."
Nebraska processes SNAP benefits through the ACCESS Nebraska system, which has faced criticism for causing delays and errors when dealing with clients. The system was created in 2008 to streamline the process of applying for public benefits, including food stamps and home-energy assistance.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Tami Leiting-Hall, a single mother in Lincoln who works at a fast-food restaurant. Leiting-Hall is represented by the Lincoln-based Nebraska Appleseed and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice in New York. Her attorneys have requested class-action status for everyone who has applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program since 2012.
According to lawsuit, Leiting-Hall applied to renew her food benefits on June 16 for herself and her 10-year-old son. She called the ACCESS Nebraska benefits hotline on July 14 and was told her case was still pending. According to the lawsuit, a state employee suggested that she use local soup kitchens and food banks until her application was processed.
The lawsuit doesn't seek monetary damages but asks a judge to order the department to process applications with the 30-day window mandated by law.
The department was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, along with department CEO Kerry Winterer and Thomas Pristow, director of Nebraska's children and family services division. Reno has said the department doesn't comment on pending lawsuits.
Despite the progress, some lawmakers said they're still looking for ways to improve the service.
Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln said the state could join forces with outside groups that already serve elderly and low-income residents, such as food banks, independent living centers and Community Action offices. Some partnerships are already in place, she said, but the state could add more.
"If you got stuck, you would have a go-to person to help go over your application," Bolz said.
Bolz, who serves on the ACCESS Nebraska committee, said lawmakers also plan to look at whether the state has sufficient staff and technology to process applications.
"Even one error or one month of delays can have a huge human impact," she said.