Availability of food aid information via call center rose

In May, Missourians who called in for food assistance had to wait on hold for an average of 56 minutes before they could start the required interview process. A federal judge called this wait time “unacceptably long.”

The Independent got data that showed that wait times kept getting longer each month during the summer.

In August, people who called the state hotline for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, had to wait on hold for an average of over an hour and a half before they could talk to an agent.

In both June and July, the wait times were more than an hour.

In 2014, the Department of Social Services told the company that ran the SNAP call centers that wait times were longer than 6 minutes.

To get SNAP benefits, applicants have to go through an interview, and they have to go through another interview every 12 to 24 months to keep their benefits. However, long wait times can make it hard to get through.

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In February, a federal lawsuit was filed because of this situation. The lawsuit says that Missouri is wrongly denying food assistance to thousands of low-income residents and breaking federal SNAP law.

The judge in charge of the federal lawsuit, M. Douglas Harpool, said that the 56-minute wait time was “still unacceptable and especially hard on Missourians who need SNAP benefits but are struggling financially.”

From February to May, the state saw SNAP wait times go down “substantially.” The most recent data show that this trend did not last, even though Medicaid, another safety net program, became more useful.

The state says that long SNAP wait times in the summer are because there are more people applying and the economy is getting worse. Officials also say that the Missouri Department of Social Services, which runs the program, has a shortage of staff and a high turnover rate.

When there are too many calls, SNAP applicants can’t even get in line; the call is automatically cut off.

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“I don’t think we’re doing enough.”

DSS did not give out information about wait times that was more up-to-date. The Independent got the wait times for June, July, and August on Monday. This came after a request for public records was sent to DSS in September.

In response to a request for records from the Independent, the state said that applicants have shorter wait times when they answer a call from an automated system.

Applicants usually get a call from DSS for an interview within a few days of filling out an application. If they answer, they only have to wait about two minutes to talk to a staff member, according to the information given.

The federal lawsuit, on the other hand, says that applicants often miss these calls because they don’t know when to expect them. When this happens, they have to go to an office in person or call the call center.

DSS also said that some callers mistakenly go to the call center’s general questions queue instead of the specific SNAP queue. This could give an incomplete picture of the data, but DSS did not give the data for the tier they said was important or say how often this might happen.

On DSS’s Facebook page, where people who get benefits often ask questions, people left the following comments last month: “What a terrible process this is! I’ve been trying for two weeks to set up a SNAP interview for my disabled son, but they won’t take my call because there are so many.”

Last month, there was another request for help that said, “I sure would like to hear from someone, but 319 people are ahead of me on the phone.”

As long wait times for SNAP have remained a problem, the state has been able to cut the time it takes to process Medicaid applications.

In June, it took an average of 115 days to review Medicaid applications, which was so long that the federal government had to step in to make sure Missouri followed the rules of the program. In September, the state said that the backlog of Medicaid applications had been cleared up thanks to the work of staff and changes to the policy. For the first time in almost a year, the average time it took to process a case fell below the federal limit that month.

Kim Evans, who is in charge of DSS’s Family Support Division, has said in the past that the same people who handle Medicaid applications are also trained to handle SNAP applications and that DSS moves staff around based on what’s needed.

Caitlin Whaley, a spokesperson for DSS, said that the number of Family Support Division employees who are “shifted daily” depends on the “volume of calls and the business need to keep Medicaid applications on time.”

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Whaley didn’t answer when asked if the focus on Medicaid applications since July could have made the wait times for SNAP longer.

A representative from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of SNAP in the states, said that there are no federal rules about how long people have to wait in call centers.

“(Food and Nutrition Services) continues to work with state leaders to look at possible solutions and will continue to track internal state progress on call wait times,” a USDA spokesperson said.

State Sen. Jill Schupp, a Democrat from St. Louis County who has asked the department before about SNAP wait times, said in an interview that she is still worried that DSS’s staffing levels could be affecting social safety net services, even though the department is working to improve wait times and is “successful” in “some areas.”

She said, “I’m not sure we’re doing enough to be able to hire and keep new employees.”

DSS says it will launch an “enhanced customer portal” with scheduling features. They think this will make their call centers less busy. But Whaley said that won’t be ready until sometime in 2023.

Whaley said that the state has already “worked to put in place more resources for citizens, like a live chat feature, a website that lists verification documents, and a new secure document upload portal.”

When asked if the improved customer portal would change how applicants could get services in person, Whaley said, “The agency is not trying to take away service options; rather, it is trying to add them.”

The Missouri Independent, at www.missouriindependent.com, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news site that covers state government and how it affects Missourians.


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