State officials have agreed to new procedures designed to ensure that food stamp applicants get their benefits on time.
The agreement, designed to end a 2004 lawsuit, mandates that the Department of Economic Security monitor applications to comply with federal law that requires states to approve or reject all requests for aid within 30 days. That same law mandates that requests by the most needy be handled within seven days.
It also requires the state to set up a toll-free number to be used by those who are applying for either new benefits or recertification and whose requests have not been processed on time.
Ellen Katz, attorney for the William E. Morris Institute for Justice, said Monday that DES already has made great strides since the lawsuit was filed.
Katz said the agency now is processing 95 percent of applications on time, which she said is the result of that lawsuit. When the lawsuit was filed, only 70 percent of requests met the time limit, Katz said.
She said that delay was critical for the more than 550,000 Arizona families who receive food stamps and who have to be recertified every year. Katz said state delays can be especially harmful for those families.
“If they don’t get their food stamps or cash assistance on a certain day it’s not like they can go to the bank,” Katz said.
The settlement also allows her law firm to continue monitoring for the next 13 months.
DES publicist Liz Barker acknowledged in 2004 there was a problem.
She said the agency had been a victim of a double whammy with the soft economy. She said that the number of applications for food stamps had gone up 82 percent in the prior three years.
At the same time, Barker said, budget-cutting efforts by state lawmakers forced layoffs and prevented DES from filling vacant positions.
But Barker said work already was under way when the lawsuit was filed to process applications more quickly, including eligibility interviews on weekends.
The case was filed by Denise Brancatelli, a Tucson mother of three, in behalf of herself and others in the same situation.
According to the lawsuit, one of her children has severe medical conditions that require Brancatelli to take time off from work as well as prepare a special diet.
Katz said Brancatelli received food stamps for at least two years.
Brancatelli, following up on a notice she received in June 2004, submitted the paperwork for recertification. But as of August she had received no word from DES — and no food stamps.
Katz said the food stamps made up almost 40 percent of Brancatelli’s income.