Food stamp recipient told to pay up after agency admits it made mistake by giving her cash

The agency admits fault for giving the woman approval in the first place and now says it needs all the money she received back
May 8, 2014 8:58:15 PM PDT
After her liver transplant, Claudia Wolff signed up for food stamps and was approved; it was a relief for the 60-year-old Houstonian, knowing that the extra money would help with the special diet she now needed.

Now Wolff says wishes she had never even heard of the food stamp program.

After receiving $200 a month in food stamps for two and a half years, Wolff was cut off by state officials who said she made too much money and that her medical expenses weren't high enough to qualify for food assistance.

What's more, officials with the state Health and Human Services Commission, which administers the federal food stamp program, told Wolff it was their error, not hers.

"The overpayment occurred because of agency error," according to an October 2013 HHSC letter to Wolff.

There was more to the letter from the state: She was also told to return the food stamp money she had received since she was approved for the program in April 2011.

And that comes to $5,013.

"It was a mistake and it was their fault and then they turn around and ask me to pay $5,000 back," Wolff said. "Their agent made an error. How can they ask for it back? If I had $5,000 in my budget, why would I have asked for the food stamps? I needed help."

The food stamp program, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, provides $6 billion in assistance in Texas alone.

Wolff isn't the only one this has been surprised by an agency error, state records show.

Since 2009, nearly 40,000 SNAP recipients were overpaid because of agency error to the tune of almost $41 million. That's enough money to provide 28,000 Texans with food stamps for a year.

State officials readily concede it's their mistake. They also say there is nothing they can do to help and that federal food stamp rules insist the state claw back the money from recipients who have been overpaid food stamp money ? even if it's because of an agency blunder.

"We have an obligation by the federal government to collect this money that's been overpaid, even when it's the agency's error," said Texas Health and Human Services Commission Spokeswoman Linda Edwards Gockel. "These are taxpayer dollars. We have an obligation to the taxpayer to get their money back for them."

The rules don't make sense to Wolff, who has been served with a double blow: She says she can't afford to pay back the money and is now struggling to come up with the cash for the diet doctors say she needs.

She also doesn't understand how the mistake concerning her food stamps took so long to catch.

"How many times in two and a half years that I sent in my information and you kept renewing it and granting it and granting it and granting it and someone finally caught it two and a half years later?" Wolff asked.

Gockel said the error was made because of poor data entry by a state worker concerning Wolff's medical expenses.

"The error occurred in her case because a worker looked at her annual expenses and entered them as monthly expenses," Gockel said.

State rules say Wolff can make payments to the state for as little as $25 a month. But the state also has other means of making sure overpaid food stamp recipients cough up the cash, and Wolff fears the state is going to garnish her disability check.

"Now they're threatening that they're going to turn it over to the US Department of Treasury," Wolff said.

According to Gockel, "In some cases there are other ways that the federal government can try to recoup some of that money."

Whatever the method, the state has clawed back more than a morsel of food stamp money they've paid out because of their own error. Since 2009, they've gotten $18.2 million of it back, records show.

And what of the worker who made the gaffe on Wolff's application? There were two workers, actually, who never caught the error over the two-and-a-half years, according to the state. One has left the HHSC. One is still working there.

Gockel said that such agency errors are rare, and in fact, the state's food stamp error rate is only 3 percent.

That statistic does not provide Wolff much comfort.

"My Gosh, to just cut you off," she said. "That $200 was like thousands to me. It was the difference between eating well and not eating well."

Producer: Trent Seibert


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