Bread for the City Submits Testimony On Public Benefits Access Issues
Today, Bread for the City Paralegal Jack Noble testified before the DC Council about the issues our clients face when accessing public benefits. Below are highlights from Jack’s testimony:
I am testifying today about the extensive issues our clients have encountered while accessing public benefits. Bread for the City has testified on these issues in the past: applications going unprocessed, recertification notices not being sent, recipients being placed in the wrong programs or not receiving the right level of assistance. We regret to report that these issues persist. Today I will share recurring problems we have seen with specific programs as well as issues our public benefits legal team has encountered in the appeals process for public benefits cases. We urge the Council to hold DHS accountable for these issues.
Bread for the City is a Federally Qualified Health Clinic (FQHC). In addition to primary care and dental services, we help eligible patients apply for public health insurance programs. We often fax Medicaid applications to DHS’s Fort Davis Service Center, per a memo from the Department. This arrangement should take the administrative burden off clients, saving them a trip to a busy service center. Yet unfortunately we find that a large proportion of the applications we submit to DHS are still pending even after the 45 day application processing deadline has passed.
Clients also continue to report that their food stamps (SNAP) terminate or are reduced without notice. Sometimes this happens out of the blue. Other times, this occurs because the client was due to recertify but did not receive a notice from DHS letting them know to recertify at a service center. Clients only learn that they missed a recertification when they do not receive their monthly SNAP deposit. At this point, they must go reapply for SNAP at a DHS Service Center. After an hours-long visit to DHS, and often a return visit to bring more required documents, their SNAP may only be reactivated the next month. Going without SNAP for a month forces recipients to rely on friends, family, and non-profit food banks such as Bread for the City while they wait for their SNAP to be reinstated. Though a client may receive an underpayment after the fact, they have to scrape things together while they wait.
We also find that our clients are often confused about the status of their application for benefits. When our legal clinic’s public benefits team intervenes on a client’s behalf, DHS often reports to us that the client is simply missing a required document, but that information was not communicated to the client. If a client is missing a document following an application or recertification for a given program, federal and municipal regulations require a clear notice of what verification a client needs to provide. We often hear from clients that they have no idea what documents they are missing and that front-line workers at DHS Service Centers are equally unsure.
Where LEP/NEP (limited English proficient and non English proficient) customers are assigned to English speaking staff members, we have received reports of poor quality telephonic interpretation, long wait times for interpretation, and DHS staff attempting to proceed in English. We have also heard clients report that DHS treats English-speaking customers and LEP/NEP customers differently, for example, requiring only LEP/NEP customers to provide documentation of citizenship. One of our clients, a SNAP applicant from Puerto Rico was made to provide a birth certificate along with her application, even though providing her social security number and an attestation of citizenship is all that is required.
Several of our clients have reported that they leave service centers confused about the next steps in their application process. Written materials are often provided only in English, which limits customers’ ability to do any required follow-up or even understand the process. This includes documents like a checklist that informs customers of additional proofs they must bring in to DHS in order for their application to be processed. Other customers never even make it to a DHS staff member to submit an application, finding themselves turned away for reasons they don’t understand because interpretation is not provided.
Finally, LEP/NEP customers who call DHS for assistance often end up on hold for long periods of time, and then rarely receive interpretation even when they reach a person. As part of its FY 2018 Language Access Compliance Report, the Office of Human Rights (OHR) conducted in-person and telephonic tests of DHS. OHR found that only 1 out of 15 testers that called DHS by phone received the requested service, information, or appropriate resources in their language. DHS did a better job providing interpretation in person than by phone. Of 19 people who conducted in-person tests at DHS, 2 did not receive language access services. Even though customers fare better receiving services in person at DHS, it is still unacceptable that more than 10% of customers in OHR’s in-person test did not receive any language access assistance.
Regarding the Rapid Rehousing Program, we direct the counsel’s attention to the testimony of Legal Aid Society and Children’s Law Center. We echo their concerns about the effectiveness of the program in ending homelessness in DC.
We know the stories of clients who come to Bread for the City for help accessing public benefits, but we are equally concerned about public benefits recipients who experience these systemic issues and go through the appeals process on their own. Recipients who request fair hearings on their own face a time consuming process and may not know how to push forward when Policy Analysts request continuances and fail to mount substantial cases against the Petitioner. Elderly people, people with disabilities, people with children, and everyone experiencing poverty face significant boundaries to showing up at OAH hearings repeatedly. We should not underestimate the effect of drawn out hearing processes on people simply trying to access health insurance or help paying for basic necessities. We ask the council to demand solutions from DHS to these issues with public benefit programs and the appeals process.