ACLU files lawsuit against RI over food stamp benefits

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU) announced Friday the details of a lawsuit it’s filed against the state over its new benefits eligibility system.

The class action lawsuit claims the state has failed to timely provide benefits to needy families due in part to its troubled transition to the Unified Health Infrastructure Project – otherwise known as UHIP.

The $364 million system was created to manage all of the state’s social services, such as SNAP benefits, HealthSource RI insurance accounts, Medicaid enrollment, and state Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments.

Since it was launched in September, UHIP has run into serious technical problems, leading to delays and long waits.

The ACLU’s lawsuit focused on SNAP benefits, also known as the food stamp program. The group says the problems have caused thousands of households to suffer the “imminent risk of going hungry as a result of being denied needed assistance to help them feed their families.”

“They need the relief now. They can’t wait until the system is fixed,” said ACLU volunteer attorney Lynette Labinger. “And we want all hands on deck to fix it, especially when you think about the time of year it is.”

“We’re coming into the winter time,” she continued. “It’s cold today and people need to eat today. They can’t wait for the state to get its act together and fix things.”

The lawsuit aims to require the state to comply with its obligation to residents who want to participate in the food stamp program by processing their applications within the time limits of the federal government: 30 days for regularly qualified residents and seven days for the people with the lowest incomes.

Last week, the Food and Nutrition Service – a federal agency that oversees SNAP benefits – issued a warning to the state after it discovered that “unauthorized personnel” were processing food stamp applications. The personnel were employees of Deloitte, the company being paid to build UHIP.

Brenna McCabe, spokesperson for the state’s Department of Administration, released a statement saying the state is doing everything it can to meet residents’ needs. “We are not aware of the details of this complaint, but we continue to do everything in our power to meet the needs of the people we serve,” she said. “We remain deeply committed to providing the best-quality service for customers.”