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Missouri callers to SNAP were on hold for more than an hour ” Missouri

In May, Missouri residents who called for food assistance by phone had to wait an average of 56 minutes in line to get through to the required interview process, a delay that a federal judge deemed “unacceptably long.”

But as the summer progressed, wait times continued to lengthen each month, according to data obtained by The Independent this week.

Callers to the state hotline, which handles the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), waited on hold for an average of over an hour and a half in August before being connected to agents.

Waiting times exceeded one hour in both June and July.

In 2014, the Department of Social Services reprimanded its then-SNAP call center contractor because wait times were more than 6 minutes.

Applicants must complete an interview to receive SNAP benefits and be interviewed every 12 to 24 months for recertification, but long waits can make it difficult to get through.

The situation sparked a federal lawsuit in February alleging Missouri was falsely denying food assistance to thousands of low-income residents and violating federal SNAP law.

The judge overseeing the federal lawsuit, M. Douglas Harpool, called the 56-minute wait “still unacceptably long and particularly onerous for financially troubled Missouri citizens who require SNAP services.”

From February through May, the state noted a “significant decrease” in SNAP wait times. The latest data shows that this trend did not last, even as another social safety net program, Medicaid, became more timely.

The state has attributed long summer SNAP waits to an influx of applicants and a deteriorating economy. Officials also point to staff shortages and high turnover within the Missouri Department of Social Services, which oversees the program.

If the call volume is too high, SNAP applicants cannot even join the queue: the call is automatically terminated.

“Not sure we’re doing enough”

DSS did not provide more recent waiting time data. Waiting times for June, July and August were handed over to The Independent on Monday in response to a public record request filed with DSS in September.

In response to The Independent’s query, the state said wait times are shorter when applicants answer the state’s call, which originates from an automated system.

Applicants will typically receive an automatic phone dialer call from DSS for an interview within a few days of submitting their application. According to the data provided, when they pick up, they only have to wait about two minutes to be connected to the staff.

However, according to the federal lawsuit, applicants often miss these calls because they don’t know when to expect them. At this point, they need to go to a personal office or use the call center.

DSS also highlighted that some callers are incorrectly entering the queue for the call center’s general questions section rather than the specific SNAP queue, which could provide an incomplete picture of the data – but DSS has the data for the tier they claimed that it is relevant, not provided or quantify how often this might be.

The DSS Facebook page, where beneficiaries frequently ask questions, commented last month, among other things: “What a nightmare this process is! I’ve been trying to schedule a SNAP interview for my disabled son for the past two weeks…they are unable to take the call due to the volume of calls.”

Another plea for help over the past month read: “I’d like to hear from someone since then [there are] 319 people on the phone before me.”

As wait times continue to be an issue for SNAP, the state has successfully reduced the time it takes to process Medicaid applications.

Processing times for Medicaid application evaluations became so long — an average of 115 days in June — that the federal government intervened to bring Missouri into compliance with the program’s rules. In September, the state announced it had closed its Medicaid application backlog, praising the work of staff and the flexibility of the policy. The average processing time fell this month for the first time in almost a year within the federal borders.

Kim Evans, director of DSS’s Family Support Division, previously explained that employees who process Medicaid applications are also trained to process SNAP applications, and DSS rotates employees as needed.

Caitlin Whaley, a spokeswoman for DSS, said the number of Family Support Division employees who are “moved around daily” depends on the “number of calls and the business need to keep Medicaid applications fresh.”

Whaley didn’t respond to questions about whether the focus on Medicaid applications beginning in July may have impacted SNAP wait times.

A spokesman for the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP in the states, said there are no state regulations on call center wait times.

“[Food and Nutrition Services] continues to work with government to review possible resolutions and will continue to monitor internal government progress on call waiting times,” the USDA spokesman said.

State Senator Jill Schupp, a St. Louis County Democrat who previously pressured the department over SNAP wait times, said in an interview that she remains concerned that DSS’s staffing levels could impact social safety net services — albeit ones the department is working to improve wait times and is having success “in some areas,” she said.

“I’m not sure we’re doing enough,” she said, “to be able to hire and retain new employees.”

DSS has said it will launch an “enhanced customer portal” with scheduling capabilities that they expect will ease the burden on their call centers. But that won’t be available until sometime in 2023, Whaley said.

The state has already “worked to implement more citizen-centric resources such as a live chat feature, a verification document overview website, and a new secure document upload portal,” Whaley said.

When asked if the improved client portal would change applicants’ access to personal options, Whaley said, “The agency isn’t trying to take away service options, it’s trying to add them.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri independent, part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.