- Associated Press - Thursday, November 2, 2017

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - A federal judge appointed a person Thursday to ensure that Rhode Island residents receive food stamps on time, as benefits for thousands of people have been delayed amid computer problems.

U.S. District Judge William Smith appointed attorney Deming Sherman to make sure the state complies with the court-ordered terms of a settlement it agreed to earlier this year with the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU lawsuit, filed last year after the rollout of a new computer system, alleged that the state failed to process food stamp applications and issue benefits within the time frames mandated by the federal government.

Smith said he alerted the state and ACLU on Oct. 4 during a confidential meeting that he was likely to appoint a special master to help manage the system because of the state’s acknowledgement of “a systematic failure to comply” with the order. He said he decided to make Thursday’s hearing public after Gov. Gina Raimondo made comments Oct. 26 saying she was open to appointing a special master.

The state has blamed the delays on Deloitte, the contractor responsible for the RI Bridges computer system, also known as the Unified Health Infrastructure Project, or UHIP, which handles applications for food stamps, Medicaid benefits and other services.

Under terms of the settlement agreement, the state acknowledged its federal obligations to fix the computer system so the state can provide food stamps within 30 days after an eligible person applies for them and within a week for destitute families. It set deadlines for the state to improve how quickly it can process applications.

Its lawyer, Brenda Baum, acknowledged repeatedly in court Thursday that it had failed to meet those obligations. She said the computer problems mean the state does not even know how many pending applications it has.

Lynette Labinger, who is representing the ACLU, characterized the system as a “disastrous, computer technological fiasco and complained of the state’s work to help people who need food on the table.

“All we’ve gotten back is, ‘Wait, be patient, we’re going to fix it.’ Every fix seems to make things worse,” Labinger told the judge.

She said the ACLU had proposed several short-term solutions to get benefits into the hands of people who need them while the computer problems are worked out, but without success.

Among their suggestions was that people be given a gift card that could be restricted only to certain items, such as food, and which could be activated if a person’s application is not processed in time. Baum said that idea posed several challenges, including that the money could be considered income, and therefore disqualify a person from food stamps.

Smith declined to order an interim fix, leaving that to Sherman, who said after the court hearing that he plans to meet Tuesday with both sides.

He said his two goals are to come up with a solution to help people right away, and also to figure out a long-term solution to make sure people who are qualified for food stamps get them.

“My purpose is to try to figure out a game plan to implement this order sooner rather than later,” he said, adding that he expects it will take “some months” to iron out the system.

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