ACLU, RI settle lawsuit over UHIP food stamp benefit delays

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island has settled with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union over the botched rollout of the state’s new benefits system, the Unified Health Health Infrastrucutre Project (UHIP).

The ACLU and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice filed a federal lawsuit over the failure of the R.I. Department of Human Services’ ability to provide SNAP food benefits in a timely manner due to the troubled UHIP computer system. They announced a settlement agreement Friday morning.

As part of the settlement, they said, the state acknowledges its federal obligations to fix the system so it can provide food stamps within 30 days after someone applies, and within a week for destitute families.

The agreement – which still needs a judge’s approval – sets deadlines, starting in April, for the state to improve how quickly it can process applications.

Eric Beane, acting director of DHS, released the following statement about the settlement:

“Ensuring Rhode Islanders receive the help they need, when they need it, is our highest priority. We are pleased to have worked collaboratively with the ACLU and NCLEJ to reach this agreement, which will help ensure eligible Rhode Islanders can access SNAP benefits more quickly. Annually, more than 170,000 people rely on this federally funded program for vital food assistance, and the challenges they have faced since the rollout of UHIP are unacceptable. We are committed to working in partnership with the ACLU and NCLEJ to achieve the terms of this agreement.”

As part of the agreement, DHS will mail a notice to those who have applied for SNAP benefits since August 2016, encouraging them to contact DHS if they believe they did not receive their benefits on time. A copy of this notice and of the Settlement Agreement submitted for the Court’s approval is available on the State’s transparency portal at http://www.transparency.ri.gov/uhip.

In the suit, filed in December, the ACLU and NCLEJ stated that the “systematically inadequate and faulty statewide implementation” of UHIP was causing “thousands of households to suffer the imminent risk of ongoing hunger as a result of being denied desperately needed assistance to help them feed their families.”

The two groups say thousands faced multiple delays in getting their food stamps.

The ACLU says their organization received more than 100 complaints after setting up a hotline last month to help expedite applications for some of the people having difficulty receiving their SNAP benefits because of the UHIP issues.

The terms of the 14-page settlement agreement contained the following, according to the two groups:

  • The state acknowledges its federal obligations to provide SNAP benefits in a timely manner, which means processing regular food stamp applications within thirty days of the date of application and providing expedited food stamps to destitute households within seven days.
  • Deadlines are established for the state to meet the goal of processing applications in a timely manner. Starting with the month of April, the state must have an 80% timely processing rate for 7-day expedited applications and a 75% rate for 30-day regular applications. Those requirements increase each month until they must reach a 96% compliance rate for both types of applications by August.
  • The agreement codifies an existing informal process allowing plaintiffs’ counsel to refer individual cases of non-compliance to the state. In those instances, the state must review and respond to expedited applications by the close of the next business day, and within three days for other applications.
  • Within 30 days of court approval of the settlement, the state will be required to notify every person who has applied for SNAP benefits since August 2016 of the opportunity to seek retroactive benefits if DHS lost or did not timely process their prior application for benefits.
  • In addition to individualized notifications, the state will be required to post information about this process online and notify social service and other agencies about it.
  • The state will be required to submit detailed reports to plaintiffs’ counsel documenting that it is meeting the goals set for increased compliance with the federal reporting requirements.
  • In order to insure the compliance rate continues to be met, the court will retain jurisdiction of the case for at least one year after the state first achieves the 96% compliance rate.
  • The plaintiffs’ counsel will be entitled to their reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.

Attorneys for the ACLU and NCLEJ say that the agreement is an important step towards fixing the program but believe many problems will remain for some time.