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Greg Bluestein

Gov. Deal orders changes to food stamp program as feds threaten to cut funding

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Gov. Nathan Deal is ordering changes aimed at clearing the backlog jamming the state’s food stamp program as federal officials threaten to cut up to $76 million in administrative funding if the problems aren’t fixed.

Deal’s office said Department of Human Services Commissioner Keith Horton was instructed to seek a federal waiver on Thursday that would allow the state to immediately approve food stamp applications from some of the neediest Georgians. Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said although the waiver would allow automatic approval, the state would later verify each applicant’s eligibility and claw back the benefits if they’re found to be ineligible.

The move is aimed at clearing a backlog of roughly 30,000 cases that were overdue for action. As the AJC’s Craig Schneider reported this week, applicants calling for help have been placed on hold for hours or their calls simply went unanswered. Many lost their benefits because they must reapply every six months but couldn’t get through.

The federal government, which pays for food stamps but splits the management costs with the state, has warned that it would slash some or all of their $76 million as early as May 1 unless the state makes significant changes.

Jo Ann de la Moriniere, 73, is one of the food stamp recipients who have had problems with the state's flawed call-in center.

Jo Ann de la Moriniere, 73, is one of the food stamp recipients who have had problems with the state’s flawed call-in center.

The waiver would only apply to “expedited” cases, which typically involve food stamp applicants who earn no income. The state usually has seven days to determine their eligibility for food stamp benefits, but a backlog has extended that timeline.

It’s seen as a short-term fix as the state considers a more permanent solution to curb fraud and waste in the food stamp program. Schneider reported that the state wasted about $138 million in 2013 in overpayments to food stamp recipients, and continued problems could trigger federal fines.

Robinson said state officials have drafted a plan that’s seen as a longer-term fix – though he didn’t immediately elaborate on what that meant – and that the department is now seeking requests for proposals to implement it. But Deal, who faces an election in November, said in an interview that it won’t be easy.

“We have already taken a huge amount of corrective actions. We have employees working 24 hours a day, around the clock, dealing with the backlog of applications,” said Deal. “But it also requires that we do a better job of dealing with fraudulent requests. And that’s a difficult thing to get a handle on.”

Democrats, meanwhile, were not impressed. Michael Smith, a spokesman for the state party, said Deal’s response fits a pattern.

“Our governor has once again brought us to the cliff and now wants to save us from the fall,” he said.

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