Colorado food stamps, benefit programs start to see much needed improvements

After years of being criticized for its work with struggling families, the Colorado Department of Human Services quietly got a small pat on the back this week.

staff photo
A man grocery shops. (Anthony Albright/Flickr)

A man grocery shops. (Anthony Albright/Flickr)

After years of being criticized for its work with struggling families, the Colorado Department of Human Services quietly got a small pat on the back this week.

A Denver District Court judge ruled Tuesday that the state department has made improvements processing applications in a timely manner and ensuring the right people are getting benefits. Those gains essentially mean the agency no longer needs to be babysat.

“We are out from under a settlement agreement which kept kind of a heavy hand over us for not doing what’s right by the people of Colorado — not meeting our timeliness obligations for application processing,” said Phyllis Albritton, director of the Office of Economic Security at CDHS.

In 2008, the Colorado Department of Human Services agreed to settle a lawsuit against a group that claimed benefits were improperly denied or applications and renewals for public benefits were slowly processed. The department paid about $1 million and had to start reporting monthly on its progress addressing the issues, Albritton said.

What was CDHS required to report?

Under the agreement, the reporting had to continue until new and expedited applications for food and cash assistance were processed in a timely manner 95 percent of the time for at least 12 consecutive months.

The settlement also required the state to process redeterminations — which establish whether individuals currently receiving assistance are still eligible to receive benefits — in a timely manner 95 percent of the time for at least nine consecutive months, according to the state.

People who are incorrectly kept in the sytem and awarded benefits are sometimes forced to repay the state even if they are not responsible for the error.

“Currently, the department processes new food assistance applications in a timely manner 98.8 percent of the time, up from 70.4 percent in October 2007, the date when CDHS started tracking data for the settlement,” the state said Thursday in a release.

“The department processes expedited applications in a timely manner 98.2 percent of the time, up from 46.2 percent in October 2007, and redetermination applications in a timely manner 96.8 percent of the time, improved from 43.3 percent in October 2007.”

Timely essentially means within 30 days for most applications and seven days for expedited or emergency applications, said Elisabeth Arenales, director of the health program at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy.  The organization focused on advocating for low-income families was one of the plaintiffs in the case.

The lawsuit wasn’t about money

“This case was about getting people food and getting them cash assistance they needed to pay their rent, take care of their children and cover other basic needs,” Arenales said.

The case started in 2004 after CDHS installed a $200 million system, known as the Colorado Benefits Management System. Issues with the system and difficulty getting counties to use it caused errors in overissuing and timeliness.

“The state took on the role of improving the system, and that was a heavy lift. Then counties took on the role of improving business processes using the system, which was also a heavy lift,” Albritton said. “Two heavy lifts leading to great success for the people of Colorado.”

The corrections took a long time and weren’t fully in place when the Great Recession caused in an uptick in the need for assistance, Arenales said. But at the end of the day, the state is moving in the right direction.

Going forward

The state still has some progress to make.

The number of people eligible for benefits has historically been higher than the amount of people getting help. And a federal report released this summer shows the majority — 84 percent — of the 27,071 over-issuance claims established in Colorado in fiscal 2015 resulted from agency errors. That’s the second-highest number of claims from agency errors in the country after the much more heavily populated state of California and equates to $5.2 million.

During the last four months, CDHS followed Colorado’s Joint Budget Committee recommendation and added three people to make the state’s benefit systems run more smoothly, Albritton said.

In February, the consulting company Deloitte will start a study to identify areas of improvement at the state and county levels for the benefits programs as required by last year’s Senate Bill 190. The results are expected to be released later this year. The bill also calls for counties to learn from one another by sharing their best practices. A report with that information is expected to be released in coming months.

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of employees CDHS added. The correct number is three.

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