On penultimate day, embattled RI agency director faces lawmakers

PROVIDENCE — On her penultimate day as acting director of the state agency that oversees nearly $1 billion in public assistance spending — from Medicaid to child care subsidies — Celia Blue faced a battery of legislative questions and frustrations.

Among the specific concerns of lawmakers:

Vacancies in 71 fully funded frontline jobs. An insufficient number of employees unavailable to meet candidates in person, at least in part because they are working from home, in some cases because they have been forced into quarantine.

The closure of Providence’s largest — and most expensive — benefits enforcement office is delaying the establishment of replacement space halfway.

But one of their biggest concerns: Call wait times, which in December lasted nearly an hour and a half for the state Department of Human Services,

Rep. Edith Ajello of Providence held up a copy of the front page of the Nov. 2, 2021, edition of the Journal, which was topped with an article about a drop in the number of Rhode Islanders enrolled in the federal relief program. Supplemental Nutrition, formerly known as Food Stamps, at one point national SNAP registrations increased by 5%.

Reading the same article about call wait times of two to three hours, she said: “I don’t think anyone in this room thinks the number of eligible people has gone down, so that must be the difficulty of apply for benefits.”

While Blue told her the wait times were still too long, but not that long,

Citing delays in hiring replacement workers for those who left or took advantage of a retirement incentive from Raimondo administratino amid a staff shortage, Ajello asked: “Why didn’t you didn’t see this coming?

“You knew what state hiring policies are, you knew people were likely to retire. You knew SNAP recipient numbers were down, unlike the experience of every other state in the county … during the pandemic,” she said.

“I almost feel like you were sitting on your hands until recently.”

Point by point, Blue and Kimberly Brito, deputy directors of policy and operations, shared their own frustrations with the pace at which state government is changing. But in late March, they told lawmakers they expected to have another 55 employees on board, in currently vacant positions, by the end of March.

Blue is the agency’s second director since May, when former DHS director Courtney Hawkins left to work for Salesforce, one of the state’s technology contractors during the COVID pandemic.

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Blue’s resignation as interim director was announced on February 2. She announces to the newspaper that she is returning to work in a coalition of women of color that she helped found.

With his departure, all major agencies in the state’s social services network — from DHS to child welfare to the Department of Health — will have acting directors, amid an extended search for new people. . Yvette Mendes, chief of staff at the apex agency known as the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, has been asked to take over as acting director of DHS.

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On the day Blue’s resignation was announced, the presidents of two unions representing workers at the agency that vets eligibility for hundreds of millions of dollars in public assistance alleged unwarranted delays stemming from malfunctions and shortages. of staff.

In their public statement, Service Employees International Union Local 580 President Matthew Gunnip and AFSCME Local 2882 President Rafael Martinez blamed the delays, in part, on the fact that the state has failed to fill 78 “frontline vacancies” that lawmakers earmarked money for last June.

Gunnip said, “The backlog of DHS vacancies has caused a lack of access to vital resources for Rhode Island’s most vulnerable children, families and seniors, including delays in getting benefits. SNAP for food security, child care benefits, health insurance coverage, and cash for help with basic needs during the freezing winter months.”

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Gunnip cited “reports in December that the DHS call center was receiving 575 calls per hour, which equated to 82,299 total calls.”

Martinez added in their Feb. 2 joint statement, “Our frontline workers received a message from all staff, just Friday, that DHS is working to ‘eradicate structural and systemic oppression within our organization and in the community”, but their lack of urgency to fill vacancies is non-existent.

“When it comes to DHS leadership, their actions match their words,” Martinez said.

In response to pre-written questions from the House Oversight Committee chaired by Rep. Patricia Serpa, the agency confirmed it still had 248 employees “telecommuting” from home in January, down from a peak of 413 in December. 2020.

He also flagged the resumption of more “in-person services” in the past month.

“DHS closed our lobbies to in-person services on March 16, 2020, in response to COVID-19,” and urged applicants to call a call center, use text messaging, or drop off their applications and applications. support documents in the regional sites. , says the agency.

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On January 18, however, the agency said it “resumed in-person services” at all four regional offices “due to growing client demand.” In-person services were previously more limited.

According to the agency’s tally, application processing times ran well within “mandatory timeliness standards,” except for complex Medicaid applications.

“Maybe they have adequate staff. I don’t know,” Serpa told the Journal. But with more than $1 billion in unspent federal relief money “and voters in need … if now’s the time to consider that, now’s the time to let us know.”

The agency is looking to increase its authorized spending this year from $742.3 million to $936.9 million.

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