Since August of last year the state has been paying a private call center contractor millions of dollars to process public assistance applications. Yet many East Texans continue to wait for a few dollars worth of funding to buy food.
State workers who lost their jobs to privatizations are blaming the company's poor performance. The contractor says it just takes time to process the claims in an accurate manner. Stuck in the middle of the political battle are East Texans needing food for themselves and their families.
The region isn't directly, but rather indirectly affected by the debate over privatization. The call centers don't serve East Texas. According to a DHS spokesperson the method was never rolled out to East Texas because of problems the contractor had earlier this year. However, state workers in the local office had already quit and moved on to other jobs. Temporary workers were hired for the Lufkin office to handle the resulting backlog. The spokesman says the average wait time for benefits is now at 18 days.
But clients speak of longer waits. Timothy Fancher is one. His body has the disabling affects of cerebral palsy. He's wheelchair bound, legally blind and never worked. For the first time he applied for food stamps after his wife became disabled. To the couple's surprise he was denied because he didn't have a job. "I couldn't believe it. I've never worked before in my life and I couldn't believe it. They wanted me to go to work," said Fancher. A form letter said he must work at least 20 hours a week or enter a job program. Fancher says he received mixed messages from DHS leading to dismay. Fancher recalled, "She said, 'Mr. Fancher, I don't see no problem. Then we get a letter we were denied because I'm able to work. That don't make no sense."
The Christian Information Service Center provides food to the Fanchers and hundreds of others caught in red tape. Director Linda Smelley said, "Everyday, everyday there's a story and you don't forget them. They're not numbers. They're people with major problems." They're elderly, single parents and hungry. All are required to maneuver an automated phone system when sending in applications or while making inquiries. Some give up in frustration. Some can't even afford the phones to make the call. There's no face to face contact with a representative. Since privatization over 130 new applicants walk in a month to CICS.
Sandra Pena, a single mom of four sons holds down two jobs. The state told her food stamps would arrive last Monday, but they didn't. "They've been avoiding my calls. I leave numbers, but no one returns the calls." Pena was buying milk on credit at the convenience store where she works. The she learned about CISC. "The lady I'm with she's the one who told me about it. If this place wasn't here my kids wouldn't have nothing to eat."
Rep. Jim McReynolds of Lufkin joins about 50 state leaders who are hesitant to renew any private contracts. "At this point in time the system has failed. We ought to set that contract aside, got back to session and figure out what we need to do." McReynolds serves on the health committee.