The start of the month is an important time for Son Sam, a 62-year-old grandmother. That’s when she gets her food stamps. But this month, she didn’t get any.
So, on the first Monday in December, Sam and scores of other people lined up outside the state Department of Human Services in Providence.
“I got my food stamp every month but this month I didn’t get it,’’ Sam said. “I come to ask them. I don’t know why. “
When the doors opened at 8:30 a.m., Sam and others at the head of the line squeezed into the entrance for warmth.
More than a year after the state launched a new computer system to streamline the delivery of food stamps, health insurance and other public assistance, an estimated 6,000 Rhode Islanders still don’t have access to their benefits.
The computer system, known as UHIP for Unified Health Infrastructure Project, has cost the state more than $400 million. It’s the subject of a lawsuit by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and a federal judge has appointed a special master to oversee its operation.
For Sam, who lives with her daughter and two grandchildren, the problems interrupted her SNAP benefits, the new term for food stamps. Sam moved to Rhode Island from Cambodia and worked in a factory, but now she's widowed and depends on the benefits to get by. The last time she went through the checkout line with her groceries, the cashier told her there was no money on her electronic benefits card.
“I go to Walmart but I don’t know, my food stamp they didn’t give me,’’ she said.
She had to put the food back on the shelves.
In the same line as Sam, Elizabeth Vanover waited to get help with her health insurance. She had to cancel her last doctor’s appointment, she said, because the state cut off her Medicaid.
“I’ve been down here three or four times,’’ she said. “I was on (Medicaid), and then they end up shutting me down. So now I’m down here trying to see if I can get my medical back.’’
The problems that Vanover and Sam described are not unusual, according to Kathleen Gorman, director of the Feinstein Center for a Hunger-Free America at the University of Rhode Island.
“Literally every day, we talk to people in our office who cannot get their benefits and do not have food,’’ Gorman said.
About 400 people call every month looking for help from her program, which receives funding from the state to sign residents up for food stamps.
“People call here in tears,’’ Gorman said. “I had a gentlemen who called me, and he was literally, stage three cancer. He had gone out to the corner of his street one morning and asked some people to given him some money because he needed to buy milk.’’
Courtney Hawkins, the new director of the state’s Department of Human Services (DHS), blames the problems with UHIP on Deloitte Consulting, the New York-based firm that built the benefits system.
“These stories are absolutely heartbreaking,’’ Hawkins said. “And unfortunately, you know, we’ve been clear that the system that we were delivered by our vendor is not the system that we need for our state. It’s not serving our customers well. It’s not serving my workforce well.”
Deloitte has refunded the state tens of millions of dollars for problems with the new benefits system.
Hawkins said the state has cut the backlog in benefits applications by half over the last year. As of Dec. 7th, about 6,600 applications were still in the cue –down from a peak of more than 14,000 last year.
“We know that we’re doing better,’’ Hawkins said. “And we have to stay focused on the incremental progress that we’re making every day to improve the system and improve the customer experience.”
Inside her living room in Providence, Elizabeth Vanover flipped through a pile of unpaid doctors’ bills.
“I got a bill from Coastal Medical and the exact amount is $76.40,’’ she said. “And this is another bill – a $50 bill for my eyes – and the state usually pays for it, and they didn’t pay this time. I don’t understand why I have these bills.”
Across the room, a framed certificate from Brown University hangs on the wall alongside family photographs, a keepsake from Vanover's days as a food service worker at Brown. But Vanover said she had to leave her job after an injury.
Now, she’s trying to find out why the state disconnected her Medicaid.
“I called United Health, and they said they were doing their job, but the state’s not doing theirs,’’ she said. “And I wonder why because I don’t have the money to pay these bills.”
So that Monday morning, Vanover drove to the Providence DHS office and waited in line. And waited. And waited. By the time she got back in her car to drive home it was noon. She left with a copy of a new benefits application. She was told she’d get something in the mail within the next 72 hours.
Son Sam, the Cambodian woman who was also in line, had better luck. Her food stamps were restored that same day.
By late last week, state officials said they had resolved the backlog for food stamps – and they are working to do the same for Medicaid.
“It’s another area where we certainly still have more work to do,’’ Hawkins, the DHS director, said. “And you will hear people talk about challenges that they’re facing. But we’ve made progress.”
But a week later, Elizabeth Vanover is still waiting for her Medicaid to be reinstated. To make matters worse, she's caught a bad bug. And she is afraid to go to the doctor – and wrack up more medical bills.