By Associated Press - Friday, March 4, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A Nebraska state agency has reached a settlement in a lawsuit alleging that it failed to process Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits in a timely manner.

The settlement announced Friday comes after the Department of Health and Human Services improved its response times for applications and renewals. Federal law requires states to process the benefits in a timely manner to ensure that low-income people can buy food.

The class-action lawsuit was initially filed on behalf of Tami Leiting-Hall, a single mother in Lincoln who worked at a fast-food restaurant. Leiting-Hall applied to renew her food benefits for herself and her then-10-year-old son but ended up waiting about two months for her benefit. According to the lawsuit, one state employee suggested that she use local soup kitchens and food banks until her application was processed.

Department officials say they are now processing more benefits in a timely manner. According to the most recent federal reports, Nebraska processed more than 95 percent of its applications in a timely manner between April and September of last year.

For renewals, federal law requires states to provide benefits 30 days after the date when the household received its last allotment.

Spokesman Russ Reno said the department has taken several steps to speed up services, such as sending out renewal notices earlier so that people have more time to reapply before their benefits expire.

In addition, department workers have started picking up application papers from the post office around 2 a.m. and scanning them into the system so that case workers can start processing them right away when they arrive at their office.

“We’ve improved by leaps and bounds,” Reno said.

An attorney for Nebraska Appleseed, one of the public-interest groups which filed the lawsuit, said she was pleased with the agreement.

“We will continue to work to ensure the public benefits system functions effectively in the future for working Nebraska families,” said staff attorney Molly McCleery.

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