Federal lawsuit over Missouri’s ‘dysfunctional’ SNAP call center adds two new plaintiffs

The lawsuit alleges that the state’s overburdened call center deprives eligible Missourians of federal food aid

This article was originally published in the Missouri Independent. Read it here.

For more than three months, Denise Davis waited to receive federal food benefits in Missouri.

Health issues late last year left Davis unable to work. She is also experiencing homelessness, has no income or savings and has significant medical debt. 

But she could not get through to Missouri’s call center to receive the required interview for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously called food stamps — a federal program administered by the states which provides benefits to purchase groceries.

Sometimes the queue was more than 700 people when she called the phone line; sometimes she waited for hours, only to be disconnected, she said. Without an interview, she could not complete the application process to receive benefits.

Davis’s experience is laid out in an amended complaint filed this week in the federal SNAP lawsuit against the state of Missouri, which would add Davis and another low-income Missourian as plaintiffs who say they have recently experienced issues with the state’s SNAP call center.

“Even though I have called and called countless times, I have been denied because I could not complete the interview,” Davis said in a press release from the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, one of the groups suing the state. 

“I do not have enough food, and I do not have the healthy meals I need,” Davis said. “My health conditions are worse because I cannot get food.”

The ongoing federal lawsuit was filed in February 2022 by the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and Stinson LLP on behalf of two Missourians who had faced long wait times, and the nonprofit advocacy organization Empower Missouri.  

The lawsuit alleges Missouri is wrongly depriving thousands of low-income residents access to food assistance and violating federal SNAP rules, primarily through what the lawsuit calls its “dysfunctional” call center. 

The attorneys filed the motion earlier this week to add two new plaintiffs. Soon after the motion was filed, Davis finally received the interview she’d been seeking for months, Patrick Fowler, communications director for the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, wrote in an email to The Independent.

The judge in the case, M. Douglas Harpool, previously allowed the lawsuit to continue even though the original plaintiffs had gone on to receive interviews. He rejected the state’s argument that the lawsuit’s claims should be moot if the plaintiffs had then gotten benefits. 

At that point, last May, the average wait time was 56 minutes, which Harpool called “still unacceptably long and particularly burdensome for financially struggling Missouri citizens in need of SNAP benefits.”

“Further,” Harpool wrote, “the court ponders whether any such progress would have been made but for the filing of this lawsuit.”

Average SNAP wait times went on to increase last summer, The Independent found, through public records requests — exceeding an hour in June and July of last year. More recent wait-time data has not been made available by the social services department.

The lawsuit alleges that the state’s overburdened call center particularly affects those with disabilities.

The other plaintiff the attorneys hope to add is Andrew Dallas, who said he was unable to get through to the call center to receive assistance with the recertification process. 

Dallas, who has epilepsy and frequent seizures, which causes “brain fog” and confusion, received his paperwork to recertify his benefits in January but found the papers “complicated and confusing,” with “terms that Mr. Dallas does not understand,” the lawsuit states.

He called more than 10 times in February to get help on the forms, but could not get through. At one point, there were 234 callers ahead of him, he said. 

Dallas couldn’t go to an in-person resource center because he is unable to drive due to his health, and would not be able to afford to pay a friend for gas, according to the lawsuit.

“Without SNAP, Mr. Dallas will not be able to afford enough food to survive,” the lawsuit states. “A poor diet and/or skipping meals will put his health at risk by risking triggering more seizures. “

The lawsuit asks the court to order DSS to make procedural changes that would bring the state into compliance with federal law, including by providing accommodations for those with disabilities. 

Discovery in the lawsuit is still underway and a trial date has not yet been set. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services declined to comment on pending litigation. The department has previously said it will launch an “enhanced customer portal” sometime in 2023 with scheduling capabilities which they expect to reduce the burden on their call centers.

The state has also previously pointed to staffing shortages and high turnover in the department as having exacerbated the wait times, and last summer, blamed an influx of applicants and a worsening economy. 

The state said wait times are lower when applicants answer the state’s call made from an automated system, but according to the federal lawsuit, those calls are “inconsistent,” and applicants often miss those calls because they do not know when to expect them, at which point they must go to an in-person office or use the call center.