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The feds sent letters to 44 states to fix SNAP application errors and inefficiencies

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to 44 states urging them to increase the efficiency of processing their SNAP applications.
Raul Gonzalez Escobar
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to 44 states urging them to increase the efficiency of processing their SNAP applications.

The majority of states are not processing food assistance applications on time and making too many payment errors, according to the federal government.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to the governors of 44 states earlier this month that are failing to meet federal standards when it comes to processing applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The states include Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio.

The letters call for states to take immediate action to improve their rates on at least one of three metrics: application processing timeliness rate, payment error rate and case and procedural error rate, which relates to how accurately states are approving or denying benefits. In the letter, the federal government offers federal assistance and resources to help.

“USDA is ready to work with you to ensure that those in need of nutrition assistance receive timely and accurate benefits,” the letter said. “USDA stands ready to provide technical assistance on policy and operational options available to your State, best practices from other States, and other support.”

Most states are still trying to get their programs on track due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Alicia Huguelet, a senior policy analyst with the think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"I think this letter is really trying to get a message to states that, 'Hey, we recognize you did a great job during the pandemic. You kept benefits going, and we now have to figure out how to get back to normal order in normal operations,'" she said.

During the pandemic, the federal government modified rules for SNAP that temporarily increased benefits and relaxed other requirements. This ended in February of last year.

Some advocates say under-resourced state health departments are struggling to catch up following the end of many pandemic-era rules.

For example, states are undergoing the process of Medicaid unwinding, where they are assessing the eligibility of millions of Medicaid enrollees and disenrolling those who no longer qualify for Medicaid. That’s following the end of federal rules that barred states from disenrolling most people during the height of the pandemic.

"Those workers who are processing those applications, they have a lot of work on their hands," said Luke Elzinga, policy and advocacy manager at the Des Moines area religious council, or DMARC. “The answer is more resources for state agencies to be able to do this work.”

For example, Iowa received a letter for having an application timeliness rate of about 83%, which is under the acceptable federal standard of 95%.

This means nearly one in five Iowans applying for SNAP are not getting their benefits on time, Elzinga said. Other states are facing similar issues to varying degrees.

“For a lot of people, that's the difference between having funds to feed their families or not. These are people who are waiting for benefits to pay for groceries," he said.

Side Effects Public Media is a health reporting collaboration based at WFYI in Indianapolis. We partner with NPR stations across the Midwest and surrounding areas — including KBIA and KCUR in Missouri, Iowa Public Radio, Ideastream in Ohio and WFPL in Kentucky.

Natalie Krebs is a reporter for Side Effects Public Media and a health reporter for Iowa Public Radio in Des Moines. She can be reached at nkrebs@iowapublicradio.org.