Nassau faulted over public benefits delays

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Nassau's Social Services Department continues to violate federal deadlines to process food stamp, Medicaid and other public assistance applications, according to two nonprofit law groups that monitor the department as part of a federal lawsuit settlement.

In a contempt order filed in U.S. District Court in Central Islip on Feb. 15, the Empire Justice Center of Central Islip and the Manhattan-based National Center for Law and Economic Justice requested appointment of an outside special master to oversee Nassau's public assistance program.

The groups also are seeking a three-year extension of a court-ordered monitoring period that expires next February, arguing that two years after the initial court settlement the county has not complied with the federal deadlines.

The groups cited county reports showing that in some months during the period from March through September 2012, Nassau failed to notify up to 43 percent of food stamp applicants of their approval status by the 30-day federal deadline.

During the same period, processing of up to 37 percent of Medicaid applications was delayed, according to the groups' findings, which also are based on county reports. Medicaid applications must be processed within 45 days.

"People who apply for public benefits are among the poorest and neediest in the county," said Linda Hassberg, a senior attorney at the Empire Justice Center. "Even a delay of a few days and these people are going hungry or they're not getting the medical attention they need."

Nassau Social Services spokeswoman Karen Garber said the department "has always taken the processing times of applications very seriously," but because the matter was pending in court, "it would be inappropriate" to comment further.

Last March, county social services officials met with attorneys for the groups and outlined a "corrective action plan." According to court documents, it includes adding 65 computer stations and setting up a kiosk system at DSS' Uniondale headquarters to allow applicants to apply for food stamps online.

Hassberg said the groups still are waiting for the county to detail how many of the proposed changes it has implemented.

The court-ordered monitoring stems from a 2010 lawsuit filed on behalf of two Nassau applicants who complained of lengthy delays in their application requests.

A similar suit was filed against Suffolk's Social Services Department in 2008, and the county was ordered to provide updates to the groups. In February 2012, the groups requested appointment of a special master after finding that 23 percent of food stamp applications and 29 percent of Medicaid requests were delayed in Suffolk.

A decision is pending, Hassberg said.

Over the past five years, both counties have grappled with rising caseloads spurred by the recession and sluggish economic recovery on Long Island. Last year, Nassau had an average of 39,883 households relied on food stamps, up from 36,803 in 2011, according to state figures. In Suffolk, an average of 63,034 households received food stamps in 2012, up from 55,483 the previous year.

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