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KBIA’s Health & Wealth Desk covers the economy and health of rural and underserved communities in Missouri and beyond. The team produces a weekly radio segment, as well as in-depth features and regular blog posts. The reporting desk is funded by a grant from the University of Missouri, and the Missouri Foundation for Health.Contact the Health & Wealth desk.

Advocates sue Missouri Department of Social Services over call center dysfunction

A row of cubicles in an office setting.
Nathan Lawrence
A new lawsuit alleges people trying to enroll in SNAP for food assistance are facing hours-long wait times and being wrongfully denied help.

A group of legal advocates is suing the Missouri Department of Social Services over extended wait times for food stamp benefits. Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, along with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice and Stinson LLP brought the suit on behalf of two plaintiffs.

The suit alleges acting DSS Director Robert Knodell has failed to provide timely food assistance to people who qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Among other things, according to the suit applicants face hours-long hold times for interviews, which must be completed to enroll.

Katherine Holley, a staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, is one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. “They are trying to apply for benefits for which they are eligible," Holley said. "The only reason they are not able to access those benefits is because of this dysfunctional system that won’t allow them to get through the door.”

One of the plaintiffs is named in the suit is 55-year-old St. Louis resident Mary Holmes. In a release, Holmes said she was denied benefits after calling the DSS phone line three times without reaching anyone.

This isn't the first time the department's phone lines have drawn criticism. In 2018, DSS said it was making changes to address similar complaints of prolonged wait times. At the time, the department said new workforce management software would help shorten wait times.

Holley says the problem has actually gotten worse since DSS split off a dedicated interview line for SNAP benefits before the pandemic. "That was something that we were excited about as advocates, we thought that that would maybe lessen some of the burden of having just one portal of entry for calls, and it has not been successful."

The Department of Social Services did not respond to a request for comment. Last year, during a series of hearings at the capitol on abuse at unlicensed youth residential facilities, department leaders said the department was understaffed, and call center wait times have come up in debates over funding for the department in the current session.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia was a health reporter at KBIA and is documentary filmmaker who focuses on access to care in rural and immigrant communities. A native Spanish speaker and lifelong Missouri resident, Sebastián is interested in the often overlooked and under-covered world of immigrant life in the rural midwest. He has a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in documentary journalism at the same institution. Aside from public health, his other interests include conservation, climate change and ecology.