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'Ride it out'



Michelle Thomasik is engaged in an increasingly common battle: Despite a serious disability and a complete lack of income, she can't get food stamps.

"I'm a liberal bleeding heart all the way," she says. "I have fought my whole life and voted for these programs my whole life, and you know what? They're broke, and more money isn't going to fix it."

The problem isn't that Thomasik doesn't qualify for government food assistance.

She does. After quadruple bypass surgery three years ago, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and severe abnormal heartbeat. Then she had a life-threatening blood clot that damaged her leg, causing constant pain and numbness.

Thomasik, now 48, has been unable to work as a waitress and bartender for three years now, and reluctantly has been relying on her boyfriend, Joel Terrill, for financial support.

Terrill, however, is an out-of-work carpenter who's had to take odd jobs to make ends meet. As the recession has worsened, most of his job prospects have dried up. They are losing their Manitou Springs apartment and moving in with Terrill's parents in Colorado Springs — a move both find heartbreaking. In the meantime, Thomasik hasn't even been able to collect the food stamps that would fill the fridge.

The problems began in October, when Thomasik received a renewal application with an envelope enclosed in the mail. Food-stamp users must fill out these renewals quarterly, and Thomasik says she completed hers and mailed it weeks before its mid-November due date.

But come December, when Thomasik checked her food stamp balance, it was zero. Turns out the office never received her application. But she says she never received any notice saying it was late.

When she called, she says, "I was told I never should have mailed it, I should have hand-delivered it. Then why do they include an envelope?"

Thomasik was penalized in December, and only received about 80 percent of her benefit. She thought the ordeal was over. But in January, the scenario repeated itself.

This time, she was told that she had not submitted the correct paperwork to show she was disabled — a requirement to be excused from a job training program that's normally mandatory.

Thomasik had presented the program with documentation back in March, and insists she had never received notification that anything further was needed. The new documentation was required by a tight deadline, and she was late turning it in because she's uninsured and couldn't immediately get a doctor's note.

Soon, she received a baffling letter that first told her she was approved for food stamps, then that she was denied, and then that her benefit was increasing — all on the first page. But after a week and half of phone calls, Thomasik's hard-to-reach case worker confirmed bad news: She'd have to wait until February for her food stamps.

When she asked her case worker how she'd make it through January, she says she was told to "ride it out."

Says Thomasik: "I want to find out the last time she's tried to ride it out with no food."

Huge need

Arturo Serrano, manager of El Paso County food assistance and family Medicaid, says he believes stories like Thomasik's are "the exception."

She should have received automated notices informing her well in advance that her benefits were in danger, Serrano says.

However, it should be noted that in recent months, the Independent has heard stories similar to Thomasik's from other locals. And Serrano concedes that these types of errors aren't tracked.

What is being tracked is a huge increase in food-stamp users, a burden so large it's caused backlogs locally and across the state, and led to delays in benefit disbursements for the past few years.

In El Paso County, about 61,000 people — or one in 10 — receive food assistance now. That's $8.6 million every month.

Serrano says he doesn't know how many people have had their food-stamp issuance delayed, but he knows it's more common these days.

"Resources are tight," he says. "The bottom line is, we have large case loads."

Serrano's department handles most of the county's food-assistance cases. He has 28 employees, each of whom is assigned about 1,300 cases. Those workers spend most of their time processing paperwork, even coming in on Saturdays and staying late on weekdays. There's little time for those workers to look into specific complaints like Thomasik's. There is a call center for clients, but that's staffed by just two people. The only other option is e-mail.

And the future looks foreboding. Actually, Serrano has been relying heavily on federal dollars that allowed him to hire eight workers and pay for overtime hours. That money will run out in September, if not sooner. And there's no funding lined up to replace it.

In the meantime, Serrano's department is exploring ways to further streamline its efforts.

"We're really into maximizing everything we can," Serrano says.

State of disorder

Across the state, Medicaid, food stamps, and other social programs are suffering due to a glut of applicants and participants. For instance, in September 2008 alone — when an Indy cover story described food-stamp troubles — 265,449 individuals across the state received $28.7 million in food assistance. By September 2009, it was 363,738 people receiving $50.7 million in aid. And last September, 424,878 people, and $59.7 million.

In response, the Colorado Benefits Management System, which manages these programs, is getting ready to roll out changes that are expected to ease the backlog and make the systems more user-friendly.

Serrano says he expects the changes will also cut back on confusing mailers like the one Thomasik received.

There's a lot riding on the improvements. A recent legal settlement will force the Department of Human Services to process food aid on time, at least 95 percent of the time.

Liz McDonough, spokesperson for the department, says she doesn't know how many participants are currently getting their aid late. But it's a lot.

"We do know that we are obviously having tremendous challenges with that, and we are working very hard with the counties to get that resolved," she says.

Until the backlog ends, difficulties for participants are likely to continue. But for one client, at least, things are looking up.

Thomasik is getting some personal assistance navigating the system from Serrano, who offered to help after hearing her story from the Indy.

Whatever happens this month, Thomasik says she's looking for ways to get off food stamps. She hopes to find work she can do despite her trouble breathing, and her inability to sit or stand for too long. For now, she says, she's just trying to get by. And in some small way, getting food stamps made her feel like she could at least contribute something to her household until that happens.

"They are very important to me, because the first thing is, it's very difficult, when you spend the majority of your life supporting yourself and others, to not being able to support yourself," she says.

"... So that little bit gives me some sense of autonomy. Some sense that I'm contributing into this household and myself."

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