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Users give no credit to this debit card People on public assistance have difficulty accessing benefits
August 22, 2000
By KIAWANA RICH ADVANCE STAFF WRITER
It was designed to make life easier for Staten Islanders on public assistance, but instead a glitch in the year-old electronic debit card system is making it difficult for people to access their benefits.
The Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Program started last year requires public assistance recipients to use a plastic debit card to access Medicaid and food stamp benefits. Cash benefits can be retrieved with cards at ATM machines displaying the Questlogo.
But the convenience the system promised is giving way to confusion, according to Carole Pandolfo, an aide to Assemblywoman Elizabeth Connelly (D-North Shore). She said people contacting the office have reported several problems. Some find it difficult to access their benefits immediately; others can't get proper help or replacement cards when they need them, and oftentimes there's little help from city hotlines set up for assistance.
City officials acknowledge some problems with the system, but blame them on computer glitches that have since been resolved.
Staten Island served as the pilot program for the city before the program was taken citywide last year.
The most common problem occurs when people try to use the cards at a store to purchase food, and find their accounts reading "Insufficient Funds," according to Ms. Pandolfo.
"[When] they check on the balance and find out the account has enough money in it," she explained. "They then go back to the store once again, trying to purchase food, and they find the amount has [already] been debited from their account."
In these cases, clients end up leaving the store empty-handed. Ms. Pandolfo said some have been forced to go without food or to rely on church food pantries, homeless shelters or friends for meals.
Ruth Reinecke, a spokeswoman for the city Human Resources Administration (HRA), said those problems were due to a glitch in the system's computer software. She said Citibank, which handles the contract for the program, was alerted to the problem and has since fixed the program.
But problems persist, according to Ms. Pandolfo. She said one client recently tried three times on the same day to purchase food, only to be turned away.
Ms. Pandolfo said Mrs. Connelly's office sent letters to the HRA requesting help, but has not gotten a satisfactory response.
EBT Project Director Dan Berry, with the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, said the problem is not widespread.
"This is not common, we haven't gotten a lot of complaints," he said.
He said clients should be able to get in touch with someone at HRA or their social worker to help resolve problems.
But Ms. Pandolfo said her dealings with HRA have frequently been met with an inadequate response. She said she is told to write or fax information for any complaint or case, but when she calls to follow up, she is told the case is still being investigated.
Ms. Reineck admitted the electronic system still has problems. While one card is designed to cover both food stamps and Medicaid benefits, the system doesn't always work that efficiently, she said. Even though Medicaid and food stamps are on the same card, they are run by separate federal agencies, so dealing with access problems is frequently complicated.
"Eventually the master plan is going to include putting everything under one system," she said. "It should be easier to solve problems, when everyone in the agency has access to computers and database [information]."
Compounding the computer problems, according to Ms. Pandolfo, is the fact that Island recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is assistance for people with disabilities, must deal with a food stamp office in Brooklyn to get problems addressed.
"It doesn't make sense [that] someone on public assistance who's fit and healthy can go to Bay Street and get benefits, while someone who is not healthy and is on SSI has to travel to Brooklyn for help," Ms. Pandolfo said.
Ms. Reinecke said SSI recipients who need to see a representative can request a home visit.
-- Doris (firstname.lastname@example.org), August 23, 2000