Garcia, Tucker, Mosquera & Vainieri Huttle Introduce Bill Package to Fix Problems Plaguing State’s Nutritional Aid Program

Proposals Would Address Chronic Delays that have Placed NJ near Last Nationally in Processing Applications for Food Assistance Program

Assembly Democrats Carmelo G. Garcia, Cleopatra Tucker, Gabriela Mosquera and Valerie Vainieri Huttle have introduced a package of bills to help alleviate the chronic delays that have plagued the state's nutritional aid program, leaving some of New Jersey's most vulnerable residents waiting indefinitely for answers as to whether they qualify for food assistance.

The bills were prompted by a series of reports this summer that detailed New Jersey's 'chronically poor performance' in administering the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, ranking 52nd out of 53 state agencies nationwide in terms of timeliness when it comes to processing applications for the food assistance program.

To remedy the situation, the lawmakers' three-bill package would:

- Address technical shortcomings that have delayed the processing of applications;

- Require the state to use certain federal funds to hire personnel to reduce application wait times; and

- Encourage counties to use best practices to improve timeliness in processing applications.

"New Jersey residents have one of the longest waits in the country to receive word on whether they qualify for critical nutritional aid," said Garcia (D-Hudson). "This is unacceptable, as is the delay in implementing the necessary computer upgrades to speed up processing times. For residents in need of food assistance, a delay of just a day or two can make the difference between whether a family goes hungry at night."

The Assembly Human Services Committee, of which all four sponsors are members, held a hearing in September on the status of the SNAP program and the ongoing delays in implementing a new computerized information system known as CASS (Consolidated Assistance Support System) to replace the current antiquated one. Among the many questions the committee sought answers to is why the state's $118 million investment in the new computer system has yet to come to fruition, a move that was intended to alleviate most of the existing delays and communications problems.

CASS is designed to consolidate the functions of approximately 20 different computer systems that support public welfare programs, most of which are administered by the Department of Human Services and the county welfare agencies. The contract to develop CASS has repeatedly been amended and the project significantly delayed from its original 2012 deployment date. 

The lawmakers noted that the delayed deployment has been a contributing factor to the state's poor performance in making timely eligibility determinations for SNAP and has prompted the federal government to threaten to withhold half of the $278 million it costs the state to operate the program.

"These changes will have a sizeable impact in providing much-needed assistance to thousands of New Jersey residents," said Tucker (D-Essex). "We can't afford to risk losing federal funding for a program like SNAP that is vital to everyday life for some of our most vulnerable residents."

In order to address these concerns, the first bill (A-3821) would require the state's Office of Information Technology (OIT) to immediately undertake a review of the development of CASS. The review would seek to determine the following:

1) The expected timeframe for completion of the development project and deployment of the software to the county welfare agencies;

2) The reasons for the delays in the development project to date;

3) Whether the software, as planned, would employ appropriate technology and information systems to accomplish its purposes;

4) Whether any alternative technology or software is available that is better suited to the objectives of CASS; and

5) Whether it would be advisable for the state to cancel the development of CASS and employ an alternative system.

OIT would be required to report its findings to the governor and the legislature no later than 90 days after enactment of this bill and include in the report any recommendations for corrective action to be taken under the development contract or for alternatives to the CASS development project.

"There is far too much at stake here to let these delays persist any longer," said Mosquera (D-Camden/Gloucester). "Nutrition affects so much in a growing child's life - their educational performance, their overall health, their emotional well being. Hopefully these bills will help remedy many of the programmatic problems we're experiencing so struggling families can get the critical assistance they need quickly."

"This incompetence couldn't come at a worse time given that the number of New Jersey residents living in poverty has increased in recent years while our state is still trying to recover from the recession," said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), chair of the Human Services Committee. "It's our job, as lawmakers, to address these delays. Struggling parents don't want to hear about computer problems or bureaucratic incompetence. They just want to know if they're going to be able to feed their children tomorrow."

The second bill (A-3825) would require DHS to use funds it has received as a result of any performance bonuses from the federal government for the purpose of increasing the number of trained personnel available to process SNAP applications SNAP, as well as for public assistance under the Work First New Jersey program, and for providing services to certain individuals served by DHS.

If the bonus was awarded for performance in providing assistance under SNAP, the funds are to be used to increase the number of trained personnel available to timely process SNAP applications. Similarly, if the bonus was awarded for performance in providing public assistance under the Work First New Jersey Program, the funds would be used to increase personnel for timely processing of applications under that program.

In the case of performance bonuses awarded for providing services to individuals with developmental disabilities and individuals with mental illness, the funds from the bonuses would be used to increase the number of trained personnel available to staff facilities for theses individuals.

The last measure (AR-175) urges the commissioner of Human Services to encourage counties to use best practices and new case management models to improve the timeliness in processing applications for SNAP.

All three measures have been referred to the Assembly Human Services Committee.