By now, the news that Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) doesn't work well isn't news at all.
It's a familiar tale. Mistakes at FSSA pile up to the point where even the governor has to pay attention, then reforms are promised and enacted. Then you hope there's a lengthy period of time before the cycle starts up again.
I am here to tell you that the new descent into chaos has already begun.
An individual I represent has been told by FSSA that he owes the state more than $6,000 in overpaid food stamp benefits over the past four years.
Upon further investigation, it turns out that this was all one big mistake by FSSA, one of those "agency errors" you hear about. Doesn't matter, though. The individual must pay that money back, and since he lives on a fixed income, it will just be taken from his monthly benefits — which means he'll have less money to spend on minor things like food.
Again, this was a mistake made by the state, not this gentleman. He must pay for their screw-up.
And he's lucky, if you can believe that. Many others owe hundreds or even thousands of dollars back to the state under similar circumstances. They only have the money they earn through a limited income to help repay the agency's mistake. If they receive other public benefits, such as Social Security or Social Security Disability, the state has the ability to garnish these wages, no matter how limited.
We've asked the FSSA what it plans to do about this. After several months of dithering, officials told us two things.
First of all, it's the federal government's fault. Unfortunately for FSSA, federal rules do give the state some leeway to act like decent human beings — they could adjust, reduce or forgive the overpayment without any penalties.
Then the state told us that the FSSA has no policy to cover this situation — but don't worry, they'll come up with one by the end of the year.
While they diddle around and conduct a bunch of meetings to figure out the right thing to do, this gentleman will have his monthly benefit reduced from $16 to $6 to cover what is owed.
Once again, the incident I just recited isn't isolated. With more than 900,000 people in Indiana receiving SNAP benefits, it is not an infrequent occurrence to see agency errors put people at risk. Our state's error rate is 5 percent, higher than the national average. That translates to 45,000 Hoosiers affected by FSSA errors.
What should bother everyone is the nagging sense that this agency (or the administration that runs it) doesn't care whether there was an agency error involved. It doesn't matter that these folks live in poverty and need assistance to get food and health care or that they are disabled and need services and support.
You see, those folks who rely upon the social services network to help keep their heads above water don't have powerful lobbyists working for them at the Statehouse, so it gets pretty easy to ignore them or cast them aside or use them as the guinea pigs in some grand experiment to show that the private sector knows how to handle government services the best. The "benefits" of that effort were proven in the state's failed food stamp partnership with IBM, which is costing the taxpayers of Indiana millions of dollars.
As a result, we usually have to wait until things get really awful before the administration decides that the bad PR means they must show they care — for a little while, at least. This is just the current problem I'm dealing with from FSSA; there is repeatedly an issue through one department or another.
But crisis management is not the answer for what ails FSSA. Caring about the agency's mission and doing something about it would be a good place to start.