PJC In The News

Baltimore Sun: City judge rules against state in food stamp processing lawsuit

City judge rules against state in food stamp processing lawsuit
Human resources agency ordered to come up with plan to cut backlog of cases

By Brent Jones | brent.jones@baltsun.com
6:54 p.m. EST, December 10, 2009

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge on Thursday found that the state has failed to deliver food stamps and medical benefits in a timely manner to thousands of Marylanders, and he ordered a corrective action plan to be filed by late January.

Judge Barry Williams ruled that the Department of Human Resources needs to fully comply by the end of 2010 with a law that mandates emergency and medical benefits be received by applicants within 30 days. The case was brought before the court by a Baltimore County woman who sued the state after she applied for food stamps in February but did not receive the services until April, more than 60 days after the request.

Miracyle Thompson, a mother of three, and her husband were in court as the judge read his decision, which prompted emotional reactions from advocates who took the case on her behalf. DHR will also have to send monthly progress reports to several advocacy organizations, including the Public Justice Center, the Homeless Persons Representation Project, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice and Kirkland and Ellis, a private firm.

Thompson and Earline Augustus-El, who joined the suit months later, did not seek a financial settlement. Thompson said she sued to become a "stepping stone for a lot of people who didn't have a voice. I was tired of suffering. And I know that if I were suffering, there were other people doing worse than I was."

Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald said the department was already working on a plan to raise its 83.5 percent compliance rate in medical benefits and food stamps, which places Maryland in the middle of national rankings. Donald said the time frame for the judge's order makes the task of full compliance impossible.

The state was seeking 18 months to come into full compliance, at which time they say an upgrade in the department's computer system would make processing applications considerably easier.

"We have a plan, and we'll flesh it out," Donald said. "But to come into full compliance in 12 months will be a major challenge. You can term it impossible."

DHR officials testified during the four-day trial that high employee turnover and overloaded case loads due to the economic downturn helped lead to the backlog. At the time of Thompson's application, more than 7,100 individuals and families were overdue medical assistance, and more than 4,100 food stamp requests were delayed past 30 days.

The department has improved since the spring, cutting the backlog in half in Baltimore County, according to Donald. She said that online upgrades, allowing telephone applications and other measures have helped shave the number of applicants.

But an independent economist testified during the trial that more than 3,600 applications for food stamps remain pending as of September.

Williams said he understands the causes of the backlog but added that "the issue is not whether it is easy to do but whether it is the requirement of the law." As of Thursday, Williams had not defined if full compliance meant 100 percent of all cases, instead seeking written proposals from both sides before rendering a figure.

If DHR fails to meet the percentage, the agency could be held in contempt or ordered to submit additional remedies, lawyers for the plaintiffs said. Advocates agree that DHR will be challenged in processing the cases but said the department has known of the backlog for years and failed to address the issue.

"If they hadn't been ignoring the problem in favor of other priorities, I might be more concerned," Debra Gardner of the Public Justice Center said. "But they need to make up some ground. Thousands go hungry and without medical care. Every month it takes them, it's continuing harm."

Thompson's two oldest boys suffer from sickle cell anemia and asthma and became sick after not receiving their medications on time, according to court testimony. The Owings Mills woman told the court that not having food stamps also forced her to go hungry some nights so her children could eat.

Augustus-El told the court that she has high blood pressure and suffers from depression and diabetes. She said her depression became uncontrollable when she did not receive her medication and that she was unable to care for her children.

Both of the plaintiffs eventually received the services.

"We want to be able to help poor people in a timely manner," Donald said. "We're pleased that in the case of the two named plaintiffs, they were able to get benefits. And they both seem to be doing well now."

Copyright © 2009, The Baltimore Sun

« Back