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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.

'You can't get through to them' Food stamp applicants sue for benefits

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia
Mary Holmes tried going through the process of completing her interview for food stamps seven times before running out of prepaid phone minutes. Now she's part of a group suing the Department of Social Services.

Correction: an earlier version of this story stated Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program applicants are required to complete an interview over the phone. While an interview is required, it can also be scheduled in person.

The Missouri Department of Social Services has drawn scrutiny over the years for long wait times on its many phone lines for state services. Now, the department is facing a lawsuit, which alleges those delays are keeping eligible people from getting help.

The lead plaintiff in the case is Mary Holmes, a 55-year-old St. Louis resident. Holmes lives in an affordable housing complex in North St. Louis and she's disabled. She has debilitating cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD.

Because of her disability, Holmes is unable to work, and she relies on social services including Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) — food stamps.

Holmes has been trying to get SNAP benefits for more than a month. She was cut off after DSS sent recertification paperwork to an old address.

But she has been unable to make it past one crucial step. To get SNAP, applicants must complete an interview, which DSS recommends doing by phone. That’s been a brick wall for Holmes.

“You can’t get through to them," Holmes said. She filled out a physical application at a social services office, where they told her she’d get a call for the interview.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia
A physical form can be a starting point for applying for SNAP, but all applicants are required to complete an interview as well. That's been the sticking point for the applicants in a new lawsuit.

“Someone called me in two days and I got on the phone, it was a live person at first when I got on the phone then it cut to the recording on. I had to fill out the application all over again, wait for a live representative, and there was 692 people in front of me.”

She tried seven more times over the following week, before running out of pre-paid minutes.

Holmes brought up her struggles when she went to apply for rental assistance, and now she’s the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against DSS. It alleges acting department director Robert Knodell is wrongfully denying Holmes, and others like her, social services for which they qualify.

Katherine Holley, a staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, which is representing the plaintiffs, said the phone interview process has become untenable. According to Holley, DSS already had a history of dysfunction with their phone lines, but now more and more Missourians are ending up in Mary Holmes’s situation.

“We were looking at some statistics that DSS has shared and 50 percent of the people who have their SNAP applications rejected are rejected because they can’t complete an interview,” Holley said.

A DSS statement provided to KBIA declined to comment on the pending litigation. Nevertheless, the same statement highlighted staffing difficulties the department has experienced. It asserted that applicants for DSS job postings declined more than 70 percent between March of 2020 and October of 2021.

According to the statement, DSS hopes the recently approved increased pay plan for state employees will help with hiring and retention. "An increase in pay will not only allow FSD to be more competitive with similar positions at other agencies, but it could also help have a significant impact on employee morale and retention for our current team members who are committed to FSD and the families that we serve."

Regardless of its resources, Legal Services lawyer Katherine Holley asserts DSS has a responsibility to provide services to those eligible. That is a stance courts have taken in response to suits like this one in the past.

Legal Services clients were at the heart of a suit last summer that ended in a unanimous supreme court decision that said the state had to implement the voter-approved Medicaid expansion.

At the time, the governor’s office argued DSS didn’t have the money to implement the change, as the legislature refused to appropriate funds specifically for expansion. The court decided that didn’t matter.

"They have certain obligations under federal law and they’re not meeting those obligations," Holley said. "I am sympathetic with my clients and with low-income Missourians who need these benefits and who are going hungry without them."

For her part, Mary Holmes hopes the suit resolves quickly. Her representatives have asked the judge for immediate relief. She said becoming part of the suit wasn’t a hard decision.

“It wasn’t anything I had to think about." Holmes said. "I had already thought about it that whatever it takes that I was going to do it, because it shouldn’t happen to nobody else."

A hearing in the case is set for Monday, March 7.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia is a health reporter and 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.