RICHMOND, Va. -- A state lawmaker is pushing for answers and change as the Richmond Department of Social Services grapples with overwhelming caseloads, a shortage of staff and a failure to meet accountability standards.
CBS 6 began reporting on these issues in February as residents told the Problem Solvers their benefits were delayed and that they were unable to reach a case worker. Employees at the local department also reached out to CBS 6 sharing that the workload brought on by the pandemic has caused extreme stress and unbearable working conditions.
Staffing shortages, high caseloads 'wreak havoc' on Richmond Social Services
Data obtained from the state showed that Richmond Social Services was found to be noncompliant with nearly every state and federal standard for the timely processing of applications.
Richmond is processing overall SNAP applications in a timely manner 67% of the time. Online Medicaid applications are being processed on time 79% of the time.
Those numbers are well below state averages of timely processing and the target of 97% set by the state and federal governments.
"We're not meeting those benchmarks, and we're quite, quite behind," Del. Dawn Adams said after seeing CBS 6's reports. "I don't think if this was a business environment this would ever be tolerated, and so that's why I wonder if it's a priority."
Adams brought her concerns before the Joint Commission on Health Care during a meeting on Wednesday. She questioned Virginia Department of Social Services Deputy Director Carl Ayers on whether the state is providing adequate support to Richmond City.
"I think I asked some fairly straightforward questions yesterday, to which the response was that they were very multi-layered, multifaceted questions, some of which could be answered in some degree of detail, but for the most part, it lacks any substance behind what was said," Adams said.
Richmond social services workers beg for help amid staffing woes, high caseloads
When Adams asked what the state could do to better support localities, Ayers said the state is limited in the assistance it can provide because Virginia is one of just nine states in the country where the responsibility to administer benefits falls on the localities and not the state. The state oversees 120 localities and provides supervision, but localities carry out the administrative work of supplying benefits.
Ayers added that he has personally met with Richmond's Director of Social Services Shunda Giles and developed an "individualized plan" to address the city's backlog.
"That is a step beyond what I would generally do for the other 119 jurisdictions to try to support to the extent that we can," Ayers said.
CBS 6 has asked both the Richmond and Virginia departments about what the individualized plan entails but has not yet heard back.
"And yet, there were no details provided, and I don't know of anybody who has those details, so it'd be great if those were shared," Adams told CBS 6. "We have to start with transparency. Like, where are we really? What is this special relationship?"
Ayers told Adams that there are certain circumstances under a state of emergency in which the state can expand its help and resources for a locality, but it's up to the locality to declare a state of emergency.
"We just came off the largest emergency in the last 100 years, and it has created additional emergencies as a result. I personally think that if you have a benchmark of 97% of processing applications and you're at 67%, that's an emergency," Adams said. "We need to look at who declares this state of emergency and how do we really put effort behind rectifying it?"
CBS 6 asked the state and local agencies about the circumstances in which an emergency can be declared and if Richmond has considered declaring one. We have not yet heard back.
Concern is also rising about Richmond's capacity to handle an influx of cases.
With the COVID-19 emergency expired, social services agencies must now re-enroll 2.2 million Virginians into Medicaid for the first time in three years. Annual Medicaid redeterminations were paused during the pandemic, but the process restarted in April. More than 350,000 Virginians are expected to lose their coverage during this process.
Richmond will have the largest number of Medicaid redetermination cases out of any other locality in Virginia, Ayers said.
Adams said the General Assembly should take a look at the way the state-supervised locality-administered system is set up and if it's putting an unfair burden on localities like Richmond.
“My concern is that the system is broken, and because these are powerless people that it affects, that it's not the number one priority," Adams said.
As part of longer-term solutions, Adams said the state administration and General Assembly should also improve technology and salaries for social workers.
On the city level, she added that there should be better communication between Richmond's administration and the Richmond City Council so that local policymakers can help in finding solutions to strengthen the local system.
During the commission meeting, Ayers said he'll have a better idea of whether the state's partnership with Richmond is proving to be effective once new data becomes available in June.
Here's a look at how other local social services agencies are performing as it relates to the timely processing of applications, according to data provided by the state:
- Richmond: 79%
- Henrico: 88%
- Petersburg: 89%
- Chesterfield-Colonial Heights: 93%
- Hanover: 95%
The state average is 92%, and the target is 97%.
- Richmond: 67%
- Henrico: 96%
- Petersburg: 99.7%
- Chesterfield-Colonial Heights: 97%
- Hanover: 98%
The state average is 98%, and the target is 97%.
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