- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 6, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska officials are consistently failing to process food-benefit applications and renewals in the time required by federal law, according to a new lawsuit against the state.

The lawsuit alleges that the Department of Health and Human Services has created unlawful delays for low-income residents who requested benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Two legal advocacy groups that filed the lawsuit are asking a judge to certify it as a class-action claim that would include everyone who has applied for SNAP benefits since Jan. 1, 2012.

Nebraska processes SNAP benefits through the ACCESS Nebraska system, which has faced repeated criticism for causing delays and errors in handling public benefits. According to the lawsuit, more than 30 percent of the SNAP applications received by the state weren’t processed in a timely matter in the 2013 federal fiscal year. Federal regulations require states to process applications within 30 days.

“Unfortunately, the ACCESS Nebraska system continues to have systematic problems, which has resulted in households across the state being unable to access food programs in a timely manner,” said James Goddard, a staff attorney for Nebraska Appleseed, which filed the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed last week on behalf of Tami Leiting-Hall, a single mother in Lincoln who works at a fast-food restaurant. Leiting-Hall is represented by the Lincoln-based Nebraska Appleseed and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice in New York.

According to lawsuit, Leiting-Hall applied to renew her food benefits on June 16 for herself and her 10-year-old son. She called the ACCESS Nebraska benefits hotline on July 14 and was told her case was still pending. According to the lawsuit, a state employee suggested that she use local soup kitchens and food banks until her application was processed. As of last week, she still had not received her benefits, the lawsuit says.

Nebraska DHHS spokesman Russ Reno said the department doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits. The department was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, along with department CEO Kerry Winterer and Thomas Pristow, director of Nebraska’s children and family services division.

The lawsuit doesn’t seek monetary damages but asks a judge to order the department to process applications with the 30-day window mandated by law.

Nebraska lawmakers formed a special legislative committee this year to investigate problems with ACCESS Nebraska amid complaints about long wait times for recipients. The system was intended to streamline the process of applying for public benefits, including food stamps, Medicaid and home-heating assistance.

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