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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.

Some of the new money will pay for two staffers at a CalFresh application center at the food bank.

“The need is increasing,” said David Goodman, executive director for the food bank. “Even though the economy is improving, people are still struggling. Rents are climbing, the cost of goods is increasing and many people aren’t earning as much as they did before 2008.”

Officials said countywide, nearly 50,000 low-income people qualify for food stamps, meaning their annual income puts them below the federal poverty line. But many aren’t enrolled. Roughly 10,000 people who qualify for the benefit aren’t using it, according to the new county report.

Zane said the new CalFresh application center at the food bank, modeled after Alameda County’s facility, could ensure those who are currently eligible for food stamps get enrolled.

“These are simple things we can do to help get people back on their feet,” Zane said.

County officials say increased enrollment could add nearly $2 million annually in economic activity.

The county also is using funds to hire additional social workers to chip away at caseloads in adult and child protective services departments.

A small portion of the new money, $23,000, is from the county’s general fund, and will be used to hire an additional claims worker at the county’s Veteran Services Office to assist veterans with benefits applications.

The technology and infrastructure upgrades will be at the Human Services Department’s primary eligibility office on Paulin Drive.

The new wave of hiring comes two years after the board authorized hiring 54 additional staff for $13.2 million, including largely state and federal dollars.

New monies have allowed the county to fill positions slashed during the economic downturn and address a 76-percent increase in caseloads from 2006-2013.

Supervisors since then have pushed for additional dollars to strengthen the county’s safety net.

“For a family in need trying to access medical care or a veteran trying to access services, these are real needs in our community,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin. “Each day a person sits on a waiting list, they become more and more vulnerable.”

Supervisor Efren Carrillo said he is “open to finding other funds” to fill the gaps in unmet needs, perhaps from the general fund.

Carrillo called the new report on social service shortfalls a “reminder that there’s a lot of work for us to do.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.