Lawmakers pressed the state’s social services agency at a committee hearing on Tuesday for the cause of a steep — and growing — enrollment drop in the state’s food assistance program and increasing issues with benefits fraud.

The hearing, convened by the Senate Finance Committee, marked a formal confrontation between legislators and the Hogan administration over mounting reports that food insecure families lost their benefits because of administrative obstacles stemming from within the Maryland Department of Human Services.

Participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is administered by DHS, plummeted after the agency reinstated a federal requirement and administrative process, called redetermination, which obligates recipients to prove their eligibility every 12 months.

Nearly 1 in 4 participants who were on the rolls in March no longer received food benefits from the state as of June 30, according to online Maryland Department of Human Services data.

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In her opening statement, DHS Secretary Lourdes Padilla praised her agency’s handling of an unprecedented spike in demand during the pandemic and blamed the recent drop in SNAP participation on “a natural result of the recovering pandemic economy as customers have rejoined the workforce.”

Though SNAP participation declined nationwide as the pandemic receded, U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that Maryland had the highest participation drop in the country, down 21% from June 2021 to June 2022. The next largest drop was Hawaii at 17%.

But advocates told senators they blamed the significant decline in SNAP enrollment on the recertification process, a lack of internet access, mail delays and insufficient staffing, in addition to people going back to work.

As of July 2022, local social services offices in 23 jurisdictions have 354 fewer filled positions than in February of 2020, and have 570 job openings, according to DHS data obtained by The Baltimore Banner through an open records request. The request did not include staffing statistics or open job requisitions for Montgomery County’s social services department.

Patrick Moran, president of the largest state employees union, AFSCME Council 3, said in a written statement that the Hogan administration has “failed to provide the resources our state needs to hire and retain enough people to carry out these essential services.”

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”We hear from AFSCME members who work in DHS that there simply aren’t enough people doing these important jobs,” Moran said.

During the hearing’s public comment period, Maryland Hunger Solutions’ JD Robinson said the recertification process is where most families lose their benefits. Of the 384,000 redetermination packets sent to households between February and May, only 25% were returned, Robinson said, citing DHS data.

Senators also raised concerns about a lack of customer service for recipients who needed help filling out online forms, including long call center wait times.

Daniel Wait, the deputy secretary for administration at DHS, admitted “resources within the existing call center were not sufficient” after the state lifted waivers and flexibilities in January. Over the summer, Wait reported the call center, which has 70 employees, saw its call volume double from 20,000 calls in an average week to 40,000.

In order to remedy the staffing shortage, Wait said DHS secured additional funding for the call center to hire 45 more employees.

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Similarly, reports of benefit fraud have increased fivefold as of August 2022 compared to 2021, according to DHS. The exact dollar amount lost was not disclosed; however, according to reporting from WMAR, families allegedly lost $344,000 of SNAP and Temporary Cash Assistance through the first seven months of 2022.

DHS officials said that federal regulations prohibit the agency from reimbursing victims with federal funds. Several senators then asked Padilla why DHS isn’t replacing the losses with funds from the state’s almost $2 billion revenue surplus.

Prince George’s County Democratic Sen. Malcolm Augustine said to Padilla, “We have families that are hurting. You can get them the benefits that they are eligible for that were taken away by fraud. Why aren’t you doing it?”

Padilla responded that the department is not reimbursing benefits and is instead relying on law enforcement to catch and prosecute the criminals.

“I truly believe that this belongs with law enforcement, and they will prosecute these fraudsters,” Padilla said. “I don’t want to compensate the fraudsters for them stealing the money.”

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She said that she did not ask Gov. Larry Hogan for additional funding to compensate fraud victims.

After the hearing, Montgomery County’s Kramer said the hearing elevated legislators’ concerns to the agency, and that he sees a need to ensure the department has the necessary resources.

”This is a department that is starved for personnel that has a significant task and no resources to support the performance of that task,” Kramer said. “And that rests solely at the feet of Governor Hogan.”

Despite Tuesday’s hearing, Kramer noted fraud victims’ issues have not been resolved. ”How are we going to ensure going forward they get the support they need” having lost their benefits “through ... no fault of their own whatsoever?”

“I just fundamentally can’t understand why we don’t provide that money anyways,” said Sen. Katie Fry Hester in a post-hearing interview. The Democrat serving Carroll and Howard counties, who joined the hearing but does not sit on the Finance Committee, noted California and Washington, D.C., have been reimbursing fraud victims.

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“You saw three of us asking [Padilla] whether it was her decision or Hogan’s decision, because it’s somebody’s decision not to take the money that the state does have to pay these people back.”

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