Even as Sonoma County’s economy rebounds, the number of people who rely on the social safety net is on the rise, and that growing need has led to long wait times for medical benefits and food aid, county officials said. Currently, people who apply for help are waiting two to six times longer for their benefits than state officials recommend, according to the county.
The benefits backlog — affecting Medi-Cal, the state’s low-income health program, CalFresh, the food assistance program, and in-home health care — recently triggered a wave of county hiring to address shortfalls.
Supervisors called the long wait times for safety net services intolerable.
“It’s too long; families are struggling,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose board assignments include programs at the department. She called health care and food security “essential to a good quality of life.”
A new 25-page report indicates the county’s unmet needs on social services are far greater than previously known. It led the Board of Supervisors to add 85 new positions in the Human Services Department — the largest single staff increase to any county department in years.
The additional $21 million in spending, authorized by the board last month, would also include technology upgrades and capital improvements at county social service facilities.
The Human Services Department already is the largest division in county government, with a budget of $285 million — largely made up of state and federal money. The new hires are set to push its staff roll to 919 full-time employees by January 2015.
President Obama’s federal health care law has spurred an increase in people eligible for food aid and health care programs. County officials said new money — the vast majority of it also from state and federal sources — would help close the most chronic backlogs.
The Affordable Care Act opened up health care to 50,000 people countywide, including many who previously were uninsured. To date, a staff of 177 eligibility workers have approved benefits for 24,000 people.
Roughly a quarter of new funding is slated to pay for new eligibility workers. Officials say employees will help the county address a state citation mandating that all 58 counties ease their backlogs by Jan. 1.
At present, it takes workers more than 100 days to process applications for Medi-Cal. That backlog, at 6,981 applications in July, is now at 3,490 applications. County officials said they expected a constant stream of new applications after the health care launch on Jan. 1, but departments were blindsided by the number of people seeking services.
“We didn’t get a constant stream,” said Human Services Director Jerry Dunn. “We got a tsunami.”
Of the new hires, 17 will be assigned to address the backlog for Medi-Cal and CalFresh.
Currently, people who apply for food stamps wait an average of 18 days, significantly longer than the state’s three-day standard. And, of the 500 people waiting for their food stamps applications to be processed, some have been waiting longer — 110 have been on that list for more than 30 days. The state also recommends a 30-day threshold to process applications for in-home health care, but in Sonoma County the current wait is 102 days.
The backlog for health and food benefits represents only a fraction of the county’s unmet needs. At the Redwood Empire Food Bank, the county’s largest emergency food provider, the number of people served per month has jumped by 4,000 over the past year to 82,000.