The state of Michigan has several safety nets in place for residents down on their luck. In recent years, however, some of these safety nets have failed them. It wasn’t long ago that the state’s Unemployment Insurance Agency was under fire, and in recent months, I and other Northern Michigan legislators have heard numerous complaints about cases at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
A new pilot system designed to increase access to caseworkers and improve efficiency at DHHS was introduced in February 2018. The plan, which is called Universal Caseload (UCL), was rolled out to 50 counties, which were grouped into 10 “geo-groups.” The idea was that any caseworker in a geo-group could assist a recipient within that group — leading to improved efficiency should one specific office get bogged down.
The program has not generated the success we had hoped. Wait times and service issues have plagued UCL offices, while traditional service branches have seen far fewer issues and disruption of service. In UCL counties, the backlog at one point averaged 32 percent, with some being as high as 48 percent.
This is not acceptable, and there are people being wrongly denied or being burdened with an unreasonably long wait time for services to be rendered or restored. I have heard from residents who have called my office, I have discussed the issue with folks at local coffee hours and I have discussed the issue with state House Speaker Lee Chatfield — who has also heard from numerous residents in his district.
I met with department officials in late February to see what changes are being made and how we can improve service for residents in need. I was happy to hear that DHHS Director Robert Gordon was already keenly aware of the issue and had plans for moving forward.
The original UCL rollout was halted and it will not expand beyond its initial 50-county rollout until improvements are implemented successfully. DHHS staff have been reassigned to high-volume areas to decrease backlogs — an effort that was able to reduce backlog percentages in recent weeks. Staff have also revisited cases that were not approved in time or wrongfully denied to ensure those who need help are able to receive it during this critical time of year. While I have heard directly from people struggling to receive food assistance, the department maintains that there were no cases of someone being denied heating assistance during this winter’s frigid temperatures.
Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula experience some of the harshest winter seasons in the nation. We cannot let people fall through the cracks when it comes to needing aid to feed their families or heating assistance to stay warm during the winter. While some portions of the state are warming up, we are a few weeks behind up north and we need to ensure folks are safe.
I look forward to the ongoing improvements at the department and continual efforts to improve access and efficiency for those in need. In the meantime, I want to keep hearing from folks back home and I will continue conversations between me, the speaker and the department until we are able to iron this out.
If you are having any issues with heating assistance or receiving the benefits that you qualify for, please contact my office. My staff can work with the department on your behalf and can help you straighten everything out.
Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, represents the 37th state Senate District, which includes Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Chippewa, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Luce and Mackinac counties.