Residents in need of Medicaid, food stamps and cash assistance face long waits – weeks to months – to receive benefits as a result of computer software problems that have wreaked havoc on work flow at La Plata County Department of Human Services.
Martha Johnson, director of Human Services, said she doesn’t know when the backlog will be resolved, but the county has taken steps to catch up, including hiring employees and partnering with other counties to process applications.
“Our hope, certainly, is to never get in this situation again. ... It’s terrible for our staff and it’s terrible for our residents,” she said.
The county fell behind processing applications when it faced a double whammy of low staffing and a statewide update to the Colorado Benefits Management System in August that caused “erratic” computer problems for county employees, Johnson said. The software began to run slowly, ask for unnecessary information and totally fail to determine the eligibility of a resident to receive benefits, she said.
Residents waiting for benefits, such as food stamps, have turned to other nonprofits in the community for help while the department has fallen behind in processing applications, Johnson said. Durango Food Bank, Pine River Shares and Manna soup kitchen have all helped provide food to community members.
Manna is distributing about 30 food boxes per month during the backlog, or about enough food for 70 people, said Marissa Hunt, Manna program service specialist. Typically, Manna distributes between 15 to 30 food boxes per month to working class residents, she said.
“The folks that will come in for a food box, generally, they are more likely to be head of a family or might be working during the hours we are serving lunch,” she said.
At the county’s Department of Human Services, the staff has prioritized residents waiting for food benefits and can typically see them within two weeks.
If residents have all the appropriate paperwork, their applications can be approved on the same day, Johnson said.
The department has also set up a food closet for residents, she said. Medicaid applicants have also been prioritized, she said.
Residents who need to update their information with the department, such as informing them of a change of address, face the longest wait times, up to three months, she said.
To address the backlog, Johnson has filled 11 positions in the department of 17. Four of the new employees will start Monday, she said. However, employees need six months to be fully trained, she said.
The department saw significant turnover in the last year because of the high stress of the positions and typical life changes, such as going back to school, Johnson said. She expects the high turnover to slow down now that the county is in a better financial position and can provide raises.
“I think the atmosphere of being a county employee is feeling more positive,” she said.
While the county has been understaffed, other human services departments in Archuleta, Pitkin, Conejos and Park counties have also helped to process applications remotely, Johnson said.
The goal is to process all applications within a week, she said.
“Our goal is not to have a backlog at all,” she said.
The department advises residents who put applications in before November but have not heard from the department to get in touch with county staff. La Plata County Human Services can be reached at 382-6150.