House attaches SNAP amendment to budget bill

 

Greenfield Recorder 04/29/2015, Page A01

By KATHLEEN McKIERNAN Recorder Staff

HATFIELD —After 44,525 households were cut off from food stamp benefits, the Legislature is taking steps to address the crisis.

Rep. Majorie Decker of Cambridge has introduced an amendment to the House budget bill that would address the Department of Transitional Assistance administration of SNAP, or food stamp, benefits.

Under the amendment, DTA would not be allowed to deny, terminate, reduce or fail to recertify assistance if the department has received documents from an individual and has not yet processed the documents to determine eligibility.

The DTA, in recent months, has cut off 88,159 people from their food stamp benefits as a result of changes in how it processes applications.

The DTA would also have to offer households the option of authorizing staff to contact third parties, like landlords, housing officials or employers, directly to obtain information relevant to eligibility.

The amendment is sponsored by 13 western Massachusetts legislators, including Rep. Peter Kocut of Northampton, Rep. Paul Mark of Peru and Rep. John Sciback of South Hadley.

“It would have a large impact. Having language written into the appropriations bill would be powerful,” said Christina Maxwell, programs director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, at Tuesday’s SNAP Coalition meeting in Hatfield.

While DTA workers were always supposed to offer assistance to clients in getting information from third parties, it was not always done, Maxwell said.

The legislation is in response to modernization changes implemented in October in how the state processes food stamp applications. While the changes were meant to increase efficiency, it has resulted in a 10.1 percent case load drop between January 2014 and January 2015. This compares to the national average decline of 1.1 percent during the same period. As a result, the state has lost $10.8 million per month in federal SNAP nutrition dollars.

Since the changes, western Massachusetts anti-hunger advocates, along with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, an anti-poverty agency in Boston, have called for fixes to the system. As thousands of people continued to lose eligibility, elder advocates and the state trade association for food retailers, Mass. Food Association, have also taken up the cause.

“Under the recession, SNAP was not just a lifeline for individuals, but for grocers,” said Mary Loughlin, the SNAP and nutrition program manager at the Food Bank. “It was a huge benefit to chains and local grocers.”

The major changes in the SNAP program include a change from a caseworker model to a first available worker model for program eligibility determination and case main­tenance and distributing all SNAP-related activities on a statewide basis.

Clients are also now referred to a toll-free phone number, the department’s new statewide assistance line. And documents are now being sent to a central office in Taunton.

“This is not a computer problem. This is an administrative problem. It’s how the system is working,” said Abby Getman, planning and advocacy coordinator at the Food Bank.

The state has attempted to resolve some of the issues by instructing local offices on April 16 to have “waiting area coordinators” to take copies of documents from walk-in clients.