HHSC whistleblowers on SNAP delays: 'We are sailing the Titanic filled with our most vulnerable citizens'

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The same whistleblowers who sparked Texas’ Democratic Congressional delegation to call for a federal investigation into food benefit delays told KXAN on Friday the agency is headed for “disaster.”

“With our current agency leadership, we are sailing the Titanic filled with our most vulnerable citizens into certain disaster!,” the anonymous “concerned staff” employees wrote.

A series of emails sent to Gov. Greg Abbott and others, spanning several months, claim to be from employees with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program, or SNAP, in Texas. The federal program helps low-income families buy groceries. The employees allege wait times of six months or more for people relying on food assistance. The federal standard is 30 days.

The US Department of Agriculture is investigating HHSC and was in Austin recently to meet with staff, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, first told KXAN this week.

On Thanksgiving, the governor handed out food to seniors with Meals on Wheels Central Texas. Abbott told KXAN his office was working with HHSC “to make sure that they fix any problems that’s causing any delay whatsoever.”

“Because, we want to make sure that the people who are eligible for SNAP,” said Abbott, “are going to be getting the food that they deserve.”

Following KXAN’s report, the “concerned staff” emailed us to say they “appreciate Governor Abbott for finally acknowledging we have a serious issue” but questioned the changes his office told us could “cut the backlog by half” by the “end of December.” For one, measures like training 600 staff to process Medicaid applications could take more than two months to become “proficient enough to contribute to the backlog,” the whistleblowers said. Regarding moving 250 staff from other projects to just focus on SNAP, the employees say that is “misleading” because those staff members “have been working on the same backlog for months.”

Exterior of Texas Health and Human Services headquarters in Austin (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

‘We’re struggling to keep up’

The backlog is being felt at local food banks.

“It’s hard to say whether being able to cut it in half by the end of the year is realistic,” said Celia Cole, the CEO of Feeding Texas, a network of food banks that serves every county in the state. “I don’t know. I think they’re in a really hard place right now.”

Cole said the food banks she represents are “struggling to keep up.” People are waiting more than 100 days for SNAP benefits, she said, calling it “the most important anti-hunger program that we have in this country.”

“We’re very concerned,” she said. “It’s a long time to go if you’re struggling to put food on the table.”

Hill Country Community Ministries in Leander is also concerned.

“It is putting a strain for us, for our food pantry, the amount of new people that we’re seeing every day,” said the executive director of Hill Country Community Ministries, Tiesa Hollaway.

The SNAP delays are having “a pretty significant impact” on the people they serve, Hollaway said.

“Applying is taking them months,” she said. “Three, four months, they still haven’t heard anything. So, they’re coming to us because they haven’t heard a peep.”

On Friday, Doggett reiterated on X, formerly known as Twitter, what he first told us: He will meet with USDA leaders next week and will “continue to press for answers and swift action.”

“All I want is to see that the problems these whistleblowers courageously identified get resolved,” Doggett told KXAN this week.

Cole said her organization works closely with HHSC and was aware of the USDA investigation. She said their staff attributes the backlog and delays to an increase in applications — due to inflation — in addition to pandemic-era benefits — like not being able to lose Medicaid coverage — going away this year. That has caused “increased strain” on staff who have to re-determine eligibility for millions of Medicaid recipients, Abbott’s office said this week.

“We obviously think it’s more important to get people who are eligible for food assistance to get them those benefits,” said Cole, “than it is to terminate someone’s Medicaid who may not be eligible.”

In its letter to KXAN, the group claiming to be HHSC employees, said it disagrees with Abbott that the backlog — which KXAN has investigated for more than a year — is solely caused by Medicaid cases. The group says there was guidance on how to approach the workload and conversations with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services “to prevent exactly what is happening from occurring.”

Feeding Texas plans to ask the lawmakers during the next legislative session, in 2025, for additional resources for HHSC to keep up with future demand.

“Due to the holidays, we will provide you a response next week,” Texas Health and Human Services deputy chief press officer José Andrés Araiza, said on Wednesday.

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