Channel 3 Eyewitness News has been on your side for the better part of a year with an I-Team investigation about poor service from the state Department of Social Services.
The agency handles state aid for some of Connecticut's most vulnerable people, but an outdated phone system and boxes of misplaced paperwork have led to dozens of people losing benefits and being unable to figure out why.
When Chief Investigative Reporter Eric Parker talked to DSS officials in November, they admitted there were problems, but they said in just six months things would be better thanks to a new computerized phone system.
Well, it's been six months so we followed up to see how things were coming along. Turns out it's still a work in progress, which was confirmed by the outrageous story of poor communications we heard from a woman in Manchester.
When Elizabeth Flood ran into issues with her food stamp benefits being suddenly cut off, she called the state Department of Social Services. She said she has seen the stories the I-Team did over the past year, and said she knew they had recently changed their phone system in an effort to better serve clients.
It's safe to say she doesn't believe the changes are working
Flood said she called the phone number the DSS told her to call. They told her someone would be right with her.
That was at 8:30 a.m.
Flood said she let the recording play for hours, until 3 p.m., and no one answered.
The I-Team has been following DSS ever since the I-Team were flooded with complaints about problems with redetermination. That's the process where they make sure people are still eligible for the aid they receive.
People were upset that they couldn't get anyone on the phone and documents seemed to disappear.
Last fall, DSS admitted that boxes of documents had been wrongly discarded in a Hartford office. Then DSS Commissioner Roderick Bremby explained on Face the State that technology upgrades were coming to fix the problems the I-Team had been reporting over and over.
"The problems still exist today," Bremby said on Face the State. "They exist because we launched a modernization initiative last November. The project is an 18-month project. What we are going to do is change out 12 antiqued telephone systems."
It was all supposed to ease the mess faced by DSS clients, but Flood said the situation got worse.
Flood showed the letters to Parker that she's been receiving since December.
"This is the letter from Dec. 7, what does this one say?" he asked.
"This letter says that based on the information they received from my redetermination, the amount I would get had lowered," she said.
A month later she said she received another letter.
"This one was telling me I was losing my food stamps because I never did my redetermination paperwork," Flood said.
Then, just three days later, she got another one.
"This was a happy letter telling me my food stamp benefit had almost tripled because of my redetermination paperwork," she said.
So within three days, DSS informed Flood she didn't do her redetermination paperwork and then said that not only had she completed it, but her benefits nearly tripled.
The relief was short-lived though.
"Then these two came on the 30th," she said." The first one said I never did the redetermination review process and that I would not receive any food stamps."
Within two weeks she had been told her benefits increased by nearly triple, to no benefits at all.
Disabled, and essentially homebound, Flood said the jumble of conflicting messages leaves her not knowing which way is up. What she does know is that DSS has cut off her food stamps, and that's really hurting.
"The food stamps help me eat," Flood said. "The only other way I go is the (food) pantries, which right now I'm dependent on."
DSS Spokesman David Dearborn admitted to the problems.
"We have an antiqued, automated system that generates these notices," he said.
The I-Team showed Dearborn a clip of Flood explaining her saga of letters. After hearing from the I-Team, DSS restored Flood's food stamps and gave her credit for money she'd missed.
"In this case it's unfortunate that she got too many notices," Dearborn said. "But it's also important that we make sure she's not getting benefits inappropriately."
Dearborn said they'll move to an automated system to confirm eligibility soon. DSS is also working with Manchester's Scanoptics to better manage paper.
The machines can process 13,000 documents a day, then they'll be sent straight to DSS electronically, saving precious time.
"There's been record enrollment, record applications," he said. "We've never seen this before."
Dearborn said they're making progress, and said a new automated phone system coming mid-July to make it easier for people to get answers which seems to be complaint No. 1.
"Sometimes they do call our office, they call the commissioner's office, they call the governor's office, they call (Channel 3 Eyewitness News). And we rectify and assess," Dearborn said.
"But why does it take that," Parker asked.
"Because of the sheer volume," he said. "Because of the system being antiquated. We have to do our due diligence."
DSS officials said federal law requires regular checks to make sure people are still eligible, and that's not going to change.
The scanning is being slowly rolled out right now, and the new phone system comes online in mid-July.
DSS said anyone who can, should signup for an online account because it allows you to track your state benefits online and should let you follow along to make sure you don't slip through the cracks.
To sign up for the online account or for more information, click here.
You can also call MyAccount Technical Support for help using the online services by calling 1-877-874-1612, Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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