In May, Missouri residents requesting food assistance over the phone had to wait an average of 56 minutes to reach the required interview process, a time a federal judge ruled “unacceptably long.”
Yet over the summer, wait times have continued to rise each month, according to data obtained this week by The Independent.
Callers to the state hotline that runs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, waited an average of more than an hour and a half in August before being connected with agents.
Wait times exceeded an hour in June and July.
In 2014, the Department of Social Services reprimanded its then-contractor for SNAP call centers because wait times exceeded 6 minutes.
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Applicants are required to interview for SNAP benefits and be interviewed for recertification every 12 to 24 months, but long wait times can make it difficult to pass.
The situation sparked a federal lawsuit in February alleging that Missouri wrongfully denies thousands of low-income residents food assistance and violates federal SNAP law.
The judge overseeing the federal trial, Mr. Douglas Harpool, called the then 56-minute wait time “still unacceptably long and especially distressing for financially challenged Missouri citizens who need SNAP benefits.”
From February to May, the state noted a “substantial decrease” in SNAP wait times. The latest data reveals that this trend has not lasted, even as another social safety net program, Medicaid, has become more timely.
The state attributed long SNAP wait times over the summer to an influx of applicants and a deteriorating economy. Officials also point to staffing shortages and high turnover within the Missouri Department of Social Services, which oversees the program.
When the call volume is too high, SNAP candidates cannot even enter the queue: the call is automatically terminated.
“Not sure we’re doing enough”
More recent wait time data has not been made available by DSS. Wait times for June, July and August were given to The Independent on Monday in response to a public records request filed with the DSS in September.
In response to The Independent’s request for the tapes, the state said wait times are shorter when applicants answer the state’s call made from an automated system.
Candidates typically receive a DSS call for an interview from an automated dialer within a few days of submitting an application, and if they pick up, they only have to wait about two minutes to dial in to staff, according to the data provided.
According to the federal lawsuit, however, candidates often miss those calls because they don’t know when to expect them, when to go to an office in person, or when to use the call center.
DSS also pointed out that some callers mistakenly enter the call center’s general questions section queue rather than the specific SNAP queue, which could provide an incomplete picture of the data – but DSS did not provide the data for the level they claimed was relevant or quantify how common it might be.
On the DSS Facebook page, where benefit recipients frequently post questions, comments last month included: “What a nightmare this process is! I’ve been trying to schedule a SNAP interview for my disabled son for two weeks…they can’t take the call due to call volume.
Another plea for help last month read: “I would love to hear from someone since [there are] 319 people ahead of me on the phone.
As wait times continued to be an issue for SNAP, the state was able to reduce the time it takes to process Medicaid applications.
Processing times for evaluating Medicaid applications have become so long — an average of 115 days in June — that the federal government has stepped in to bring Missouri into compliance with program regulations. In September, the state announced it had overcome its backlog of Medicaid applications, crediting staff hard work and policy flexibilities. The average handle time fell within federal limits that month for the first time in nearly a year.
Kim Evans, director of DSS’s Family Support Division, previously explained that staff who process Medicaid applications are also trained to process SNAP applications, and DSS moves staff around as needed.
DSS spokeswoman Caitlin Whaley said the number of Family Support Division employees who “change daily” depends on “call volume and the company’s need to maintain the speed of Medicaid applications”.
Whaley did not respond to questions about whether the focus on Medicaid applications starting in July might have affected SNAP wait times.
A spokesperson for the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP in the states, said there are no specific federal regulations on call center wait times.
“[Food and Nutrition Services] continues to work with state leaders to review possible solutions and will continue to monitor the state’s internal progress on call wait times,” the USDA spokesperson said.
State Senator Jill Schupp, a St. Louis County Democrat who has previously lobbied the department about SNAP wait times, said in an interview that she remains concerned that levels of DSS staffing could affect social safety net services — even as the department strives to improve wait times and is, “in some areas,” successful, she said.
“I’m not sure we’re doing enough,” she said, “to be able to recruit and retain new employees.”
DSS said it would launch an “enhanced customer portal” with scheduling capabilities, which should reduce the load on its call centers. But that won’t be available until 2023, Whaley said.
The state has already “worked to implement more resources for citizens, such as a live chat feature, a website outlining verification documents, and a new secure document upload portal,” Whaley said. .
When asked if the enhanced client portal would change candidates’ access to in-person options, Whaley said, “The agency isn’t trying to remove service options, rather it’s trying to add them.”
Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a grant-supported network of news outlets and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.
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