'Numbers are sickening:' Richmond Social Services noncompliant with state standards for processing benefits

Carson: 'The system is failing, and it’s failing our seniors and disabled community at an alarming rate'
Reporter Tyler Layne and healthcare advocate Latisha Carson
Posted at 6:19 PM, Mar 30, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- As the state of Richmond Social Services causes city employees to feel burned out and residents frustrated, new data from the state shows the city department is non-compliant with almost every standard set forth by the state and federal governments.

In February, local healthcare advocate Latisha Carson told CBS 6 she was struggling to secure Medicaid assistance through Richmond Social Services for her clients. She said many of her clients are older or disabled and need help navigating the process.

However, more than a month later, she said she hasn't made any progress securing benefits for her clients.

“The system is failing, and it’s failing our seniors and disabled community at an alarming rate," Carson said.

Reporter Tyler Layne and healthcare advocate Latisha Carson
Reporter Tyler Layne and healthcare advocate Latisha Carson

One of Carson's clients has been waiting to be approved for Medicaid assistance since December 2022. Carson said she's repeatedly tried to contact a case worker, but she can't get anyone to answer the phone.

Additionally, she said she cannot seek answers in person as Richmond Social Services isn't accepting in-person appointments.

All the while, she said people are waiting in limbo.

“They can’t wait, and the reason they can’t wait is because they’re in need. Most of the time when people ask for help, they’re in need," Carson said. "It takes four to five months with no response. Can you imagine the extra stress that it causes on someone?"

There are standards set by the state and federal governments to assess the performance of localities.

According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, localities should be meeting a timely processing of applications 97% of the time.

Richmond has fallen below that standard, as well as the state average, in almost every category.

Here's a look at Richmond's rate of timely processing of applications in January 2023:

  • Expedited SNAP applications: 45% (State average: 97%)
  • Regular SNAP applications: 86% (State average: 99%)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families applications: 59% (State average: 97%)
  • Online Medicaid applications: 79% (State average: 91%)
  • Medicaid reviews: 57% (State average: 56%)
  • Child Care applications: 99% (State average: 96%)
Richmond Social Services
Richmond Social Services

In January, Richmond had more than 25,000 overdue Medicaid reviews.

Errors rates are also higher in Richmond compared to the state average. The target for positive action error rates is 3% and 2% for negative action.

Here's a look at Richmond's error rates:

  • Quality assurance positive action errors: 14% (State average: 8%)
  • Quality assurance negative action errors: 52% (State average: 46%)

"These numbers, it's sickening," Carson said. "Richmond is behind, and the community is suffering."

Reporter Tyler Layne and healthcare advocate Latisha Carson
Reporter Tyler Layne and healthcare advocate Latisha Carson

The Richmond Department of Social Services said the issues stem from staffing shortages and an increase in caseloads. The department has 74 vacancies and 120 unfunded positions out of 481 total positions.

The Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS) said similar problems are unfolding across the state. On average, localities are facing vacancy rates between 15-20%.

VDSS said it's aware of the staffing challenges in Richmond and is offering additional part-time staff to assist with processing applications.

Officials said the human services sector faced skyrocketing demand during the pandemic and added that the industry already historically experienced high turnover rates due to a lack of qualified professionals and stressful work.

"We also recognize the demands this work can place on many of our local staff. Workers at local agencies often work with clients experiencing mental health and substance abuse crises in addition to managing multiple conditions such as homelessness and poverty. The average Family Services Specialist leaves the field after two years, citing low pay, agency staffing shortages, and secondary trauma," VDSS said in email.

Low pay is also a factor. The starting salary for entry level Benefits Program Specialists is $32,415. Family Services Specialists start at $36,993. Some localities supplement those salaries with local funds, but it's not a consistent practice statewide.

Richmond Department of Social Services
Richmond Department of Social Services

Statewide, the need for assistance has immensely grown after COVID-19.

Here's a look at the increase in benefits from January 2020 to January 2023:

  • SNAP recipients increased by 30% from 683,000 to 913,000
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cases increased by 9%
  • Unemployed Parents cases increased by 149%
  • Child Care Subsidy program increased by 93%
  • Medicaid members increased by 68% from 1.5 million to 2.2 million

VDSS said localities are not allocating positions to keep up with the pace of increase in workloads.
In Richmond, Mayor Levar Stoney's current proposed budget includes a $2 million cut in total funds from Social Services from $72 million in the adopted 2023 budget to $70 million in the proposed 2024 budget.

The mayor proposed increasing the number of department staff members from 327 positions in 2023 to 345 positions in 2024. However, the proposed 345 positions are still 136 positions short of the department's 481 positions that were funded in the 2021 budget.

Carson said she had a message for the mayor.

"Levar Stoney, you are the leader. This is an issue, and you know it's an issue" Carson said. "What I would strongly suggest is get a team together, reach out to the community and see what the need is."

She added, “We as the people have to do something about it. We can't just wait on social services because you know why? It's not working."

Richmond Department of Social Services
Richmond Department of Social Services

CBS 6 has requested an interview with the Director of Richmond Social Services, Shunda Giles, for weeks and is still waiting to schedule an interview.

City spokesperson Petula Burks provided the following statement for this story:

"As previously stated, DSS is working diligently with our other local and state partners to recruit and retain staff. We acknowledge the pain points of our employees and have begun to make some of the necessary changes that we have heard, beginning with pay increases which are in the proposed FY23/24 budget. Unfortunately, what we are facing is not just a Richmond problem but a national one. This is a complex issue, and it takes several agencies from the federal government to the state and local governments working together to remove some of the bureaucracy that bogs down the entire system.

Most importantly, the City of Richmond is grateful for the work and tireless efforts of our DSS employees who lean into helping some of our most vulnerable residents daily. This is no small task, and that is why we are asking anyone who wants to care for their fellow man to apply for a position with DSS."

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