District 3 Commissioner Candidates Discuss Deficiencies in County’s Administration of Food Assistance Program

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A June 27, 2016 article on this site discussed how Mesa County turns away almost half of eligible applicants who go to the local Department of Human Services to apply for food stamps. This unused assistance leaves millions of dollars on the table that not only could help more needy county residents buy food for their families, but that would also boost the local economy by pumping millions more dollars of revenue into local grocery stores.

The dialogue about deficiencies in Mesa County’s administration of the food stamp program continues below, as the two county commissioner candidates running for office in District 3 discuss the success, or lack thereof, of enrolling needy people in the food assistance program.

Rose Pugliese is the incumbent county commissioner in charge of overseeing this program.

A reader forwarded the article to Commissioner Pugliese, who responded to the points in the article. Her responses are below.

District 3 Commissioner candidate Dave Edwards then responds to Commissioner Pugliese’s statements. Dave has been a volunteer for food assistance programs locally, and speaks from first hand experience on the ground administering these programs. His comments are below Rose’s.

The conversation definitely provides food for thought, so to speak:

Commissioner Pugliese wrote:

Rose Pugliese, the Mesa County Commissioner in charge of the agencies administering food assistance programs

Rose Pugliese, the Mesa County Commissioner in charge of the agencies administering food assistance programs

“In reading the blog, there appear to be three areas that are being
mis-represented.

1 – Applying for benefits vs. qualifying for benefits (Eligible Enrolled)

We follow federal guidelines for FA [food assistance] issuance, just like all other
Colorado Counties and have no individual control or ability to adjust
that criteria which is based on income and household composition. The
rate of applications that do or do not qualify simply is what it is,
and is currently 68.50% (June 2016) of those who apply.

2 – Eligible But Not Enrolled(EBNE) vs. Mesa County performance.

Hunger Free Colorado did a big media campaign earlier this year that
pointed out Colorado’s estimated citizens that would qualify for FA,
but are not applying. Hunger Free essentially condemns Colorado for
the lack of outreach and access to this population. That seems to be
also happening in the blog towards Mesa County. Reason – Hunger Free
lost their contract with the state to provide outreach and education
for Food Assistance enrollment. The state, per statute, is not
required to do this if they do not have the funding, and they cannot
force Counties to do it without fully funding them for the effort.

The blog is mixing up percentages of the Eligible Enrolled (54.5%)
with those who are Eligible But Not Enrolled (45.5%) and stating that
we are denying these people. That is simply not true. We cannot deny
public assistance if they do not apply. Our current timeliness of
processing applications is 99.14%, the 5th best in the State (June
2016).

While Mesa County does not actively promote public assistance, we do
work with a broad network in the community, from food banks,
non-profits, homeless shelter, health department, etc. and encourage
referrals. Citizens can also apply for FA online through the PEAK
system. There is more human service organizational awareness
throughout the community, and the ability to apply online than there
ever has been.

Lastly regarding performance, is accuracy. We do need to continue to
focus on this area. Our latest review period shows that we are at an
accuracy rate of 76.92%, which is slightly under the expected goal of
79%. We are on track in the current review period with improving our
CAPER. We are at 85.71% accuracy.

3 – SB16-190 – legislation to correct Mesa County.

This legislation has nothing to do with EBNE. It focuses on getting
Counties to process applications timely and accurately, and suggests
rewards for those who do, and reprimands for those who do not. It
does not, and cannot address getting those who are not applying, to
apply.”

Dave Edwards’ responses:

Dave Edwards, running to replace Rose Pugliese as County Commissioner from District 3

Dave Edwards, running to replace Rose Pugliese as County Commissioner from District 3

“In reply to Rose Pugliese’s blog response, I need only point out that there are two primary reasons for performing aggressive outreach for food stamps –- first and foremost, that there are thousands of Mesa County children, adult caregivers of children, both women and men, and disabled people in Mesa County, who are eligible to receive food stamps are not currently getting them –- we should take responsibility for making sure that these individuals get adequate food and nutrition. There is widespread hunger in Mesa County, and there is widespread malnutrition in Mesa County as well.

Second, if there were no eligible-but-not-enrolled individuals, the economic impact on the County would directly be over $25 million a year for a County administrative investment in processing these applications of around $500,000. That $25 million would turn over in the economy several times, at least by 2 ½ times, equaling an economic impact of $62.5 million per year.

How is there any fiscal responsibility on the part of the County in not maximizing this food stamp benefit and reaping the full nutritional and economic impact of full use of food stamps?

1. Given the importance of nutrition in the healthy development of children, including their performance in school and the ultimate failure of children with adequate nutrition to prosper in our economy;
2. Given the impact of poor nutrition on women’s ability to do productive work;
3. Given the horrendous impact of poor nutrition on the health of the disabled:

I believe that Rose’s stance on this is counter to everything we know and believe about how government should relate to eligible individuals.

As an analogy, if children fail to enroll in school, we believe so strongly in the importance of school that we have long hired staff to go out and make sure that all eligible children are enrolled and are attending school. There simply is no significant body of “eligible but not enrolled” children anywhere in the United States.

Similarly, having eligible but not enrolled individuals in Food Stamps means that we just don’t care if these people have adequate food.

Why the county, which only pays for 25% of the cost of administering the Food Stamp program, would not aggressively pursue enrolling the Eligible But Not Enrolled (EBNE) individuals is beyond me. The county gets an enormous return on its investment — in this case, over $23.5 million dollars more than we currently receive, for about half a million additional dollars in administrative expense. This half a million of county administrative expense would also bring in another 1½ million in administrative reimbursement from the state and the federal government.

State legislation

In reference to recent legislation, Senate Bill 16-190 was passed to address the speed and accuracy with which applications are processed. The Executive and the Legislative branches of Colorado State government both recognized that counties were failing to meet expectation in how individual’s applications were being processed. If anything, the bill itself fails to address outreach issues, and fails to address how to get a greater portion of eligible individuals enrolled.

While SB 16-190 doesn’t directly relate to EBNE’s, the fact is that when the enrollment process is made consumer-friendly, and individuals know that they will be respected and helped in enrolling in public benefits — as opposed to being treated like unwelcome takers — they will come in greater numbers. For that to come about, people should be treated as welcome clients of Mesa County, not as “takers.”

While timeliness is one method of measuring success, actually enrolling as many eligible individuals in public programs is another, and far more important measure.

If timeliness is the most important measure of how applications are processed, it becomes more important for staff to close a case than it does to handle a client with care. Waiting for additional information and following up with applicants takes more time, but can result in more successfully processed applications.

I’m happy if the percent of applications processed accurately and in a timely fashion increase, but I’m not at all in agreement with Rose that the county does not have a responsibility to reach out to potential enrollees.

Blaming Hunger Free Colorado for publishing information that it has been making available for years in similar formats is absurd.

Rose’s attitude is primarily passive — that if people show up, they will process applications. I am aware that people can go directly to the PEAK system and apply for Medicaid and for Food Stamps, but even for individuals trained in using PEAK, the process can be daunting. If PEAK were much more user-friendly, it would be a good resource. Right now, PEAK is only marginally more user friendly than it was last year.

Many of the people who qualify for food stamps have been discouraged by their past experience with Mesa County. Most of them know that Rose has characterized people receiving public benefits as “takers.” Many of those who apply through Mesa County DHS are understandably very anxious in dealing with County staff. I do not accept that there is nothing that can be done when applicants don’t have the information required to accurately complete applications for assistance. We need to work with them, follow up with them when they lack certain information, and make the process as user friendly as possible.

We are all less when any of us suffer, and women, children and disabled people are suffering from not having adequate nutrition.

We need to redress their experiences with an aggressive outreach program. Nutrition for families and the disabled is essential. Currently, many of them would prefer going to food banks than face going back to Mesa County DHS. In my opinion, it is the attitudes of Janet Rowland and Rose Pugliese towards the poor, towards those who have lost their jobs and who are struggling to survive, that has created the anxiety that people are suffering and which has gotten in their way in obtaining public benefits.

In the last paragraph of her response to the blog post, Rose states that “The blog is mixing up percentages of the Eligible Enrolled (54.5%) with those who are Eligible But Not Enrolled (45.5%) and stating that they we are denying these people. That is simply not true. We cannot deny public assistance if people do not apply.”

In further response, the blog does not mix up percentages of those eligible enrolled (54.5%) with those who are eligible but not enrolled. The blog correctly points out, as Rose admits in her response, that Mesa County is doing absolutely nothing to get those who are eligible for food stamps, but not currently enrolled in the program, to apply. There is no outreach, let alone any aggressive and effective outreach.

Why Mesa County is not actively, if not aggressively seeking out eligible people to apply for food stamps makes no sense. The blog points out, and Rose has not in any way denied, that there are millions of dollars being lost when eligible individuals and families are not enrolled. Even a hard-hearted individual who was only interested in money would go after that money. People who are concerned about the welfare of citizens that they are responsible for (in this case, Rose and the other county commissioners) should be working with staff to figure out how to reach out to eligible individuals and families so that their health is improved by getting adequate nutrition.

Why would Rose do this? First, children who don’t have sufficient food and adequate nutrition have stunted growth. These children also do poorly in school. This impairs their ability to become productive citizens. Children who suffer from malnutrition grow up with severe impairments of their ability to hold jobs, and have difficulty reaching their potential as employees, as parents, indeed, in every aspect of their lives.

Mothers who don’t have sufficient food for themselves and their children worry constantly about how to care for their children. These mothers are also impaired in their work by suffering from lack of food. It is harder for them to hold down a job.

Disabled individuals who don’t have adequate food are doubly impaired. It is harder for them to keep as functional as possible. It is harder for them to seek help.

Not reaching out actively to eligible individuals and families is functionally equivalent to denying them these benefits.

Again, by analogy, if the public schools didn’t enroll nearly every eligible child in school, they would be severely criticized. Public Schools and the public believe so firmly in the necessity of schooling our children that we do not tolerate not having nearly every child enrolled. The only exceptions appear to be children who have severe behavioral problems, and some children whose parents are waiting to obtain proper identification papers for their children, and the latter are only out of the school system for a very short period of time.

If the same three measures (percentage enrolled; accuracy of processing applications; speed of processing applications) that are applied to food and nutrition were applied to public schools, and we had the same outcomes for children, we would only have 54.5% of children enrolled in schools; about 77% of the applications for school would be considered accurate, (resulting in enrollment in school); and applications would be processed with about 99% of the speed considered adequate by the state. Ask yourself which of these outcomes is the most important – nearly everyone would consider the percent of children enrolled in school as BY FAR the most important outcome. Accuracy and speed of processing applications are both purely administrative measures and outcomes, and both miss the core purpose of the enrollment process – getting children into school.

Any system will respond to the importance put on each outcome by those responsible for the system. Accuracy and speed in processing applications should be considered secondary to the primary goal of enrolling all or nearly all eligible people in the food & nutrition program. I have to infer from the data provided that the people responsible for the system (the county commissioners) are more interested in reporting speed and accuracy to the state than they are to getting people the food they are eligible for.
The commissioners can’t be interested in the lost revenues that the county as a whole experiences.
Which are: direct benefits to the eligible people of $23.5 million dollars, as well as nearly $1.5 million in additional administrative cost reimbursements from the state and federal governments; as well as the effect of pouring over $25 million a year into the Mesa County economy – conservatively nearly 2 ½ times that $25 million.

Those responsible for the food stamp program, the county commissioners, (NOT the administrator and employees of Mesa County DHS, who are only administering the food stamp program according to the dictates of the county commissioners) are also not interested in meeting the nutritional needs of children in school, women and men who take care of these children, and the disabled.

This failure to care about the health and educational needs of a substantial portion of Mesa County residents results in: poor physical development of EBNE children; poor educational outcomes in schools of EBNE children; much heightened stress on adults responsible for these children (parents, teachers, counselors); obstructed work by adults who experience poor nutrition; heightened pain and suffering and poorer lives among EBNE disabled people. Study after study finds these effects of poor nutrition on the development of children and on the health of adults.

The last sentence of Rose’s response is not true: “We cannot deny public assistance if they (EBNE’s) do not apply.” We are denying public assistance to people Rose labels as EBNE’s by not having an assertive outreach program. If the county put priority on outreach to individuals who qualify for food stamps, but aren’t currently receiving them, they will come.

Right now, the 45.5% eligible individuals that the county does not have enrolled is a measure of the failure of the Mesa County Commissioners to care about people in need.

Earlier in Rose’s response she denies the importance of outreach and blames Hunger Free Colorado for advocating for outreach. Rose also figured out that this blog is also advocating for outreach. Rose hasn’t achieved outreach by telling us that outreach isn’t important. Outreach is far more important than what she is currently doing, which is passive and self-congratulatory. This blog has not mis-represented anything. Rose’s response to this blog shows her misguided priorities and her failure to address the basic, fundamental needs of Mesa County citizens who need food and nutrition.

 

 

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