June 18, 2015

By Ramona du Houx

According to the Food and Nutrition Service’s most recent report, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has the lowest application procession timeliness rate in the country for the food stamp program— known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

From January to June of 2015 the state’s processing time rate was 68.97 percent. It is an appalling figure that has led Maine to become known as the worst state in delivering SNAP assistance. Maine is now ranked 53 out of 53 agencies that deliver SNAP.

Applicants should receive SNAP benefits by the 7th day from the date of application. Maine’s worst processing case, number 78901234 of 2014, took 59 days to process.

Imagine the anxiety of a parent having to wait for assistance to feed their children.

Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond is demanding immediate accountability from DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew and Gov. Paul LePage after the Department of Health and Human Services over the issue.

“While more and more people in our state don’t have enough to eat, the Department is dragging its feet,” said Sen. Alfond. “Maine children and seniors who are playing by the rules and eligible for food assistance are left hungry and waiting because DHHS can’t or won’t do its job.”

It’s important to remember that SNAP is a federal program where no state funds are used.

In a Dec. 7 letter, the U.S. Department of Agriculture notified DHHS that it faced a potential loss of federal SNAP administration funds if DHHS doesn’t improve its delivery rate. In fiscal year 2014, that funding was roughly $10.2 million.

The letter outlined the Department’s failure to process SNAP applications on time. Those delays mean hungry Mainers miss more meals because of broken DHHS bureaucracy. It detailed the state’s “chronically poor performance” in meeting laws “meant to protect a low-income household’s right to receive nutrition assistance benefits in a timely manner.”

If DHHS loses its contract with the federal government to deliver SNAP in a timely way — so people are not put at risk from hunger — the federal government would find another agency to deliver the SNAP benefits to people.

Maine State Capitol, photo by Ramona du Houx

The letter also described DHHS’s failure to adequately address problems in its administration of SNAP, which have been raised again and again by the USDA.

“DHHS has shown a brazen disregard for accountability,” said Sen. Alfond. “They have bristled at those who would hold them responsible for the dangerous conditions at Riverview, the sudden decision to end contracts that provide needed health care services, and now, the failure to administer the SNAP program. Now the state faces a potential multi-million dollar penalty for that mismanagement.”

Sen. Alfond is exploring his options to hold the department accountable and ensure it is fulfilling its mission to serve Maine people.

Sen. Alfond is also leading an effort to ensure school children are fed during summer months when there is no access to meals at their schools.