AUGUSTA — The federal government says Maine processes food stamp applications slower than any other state, and its “chronically poor performance” doesn’t meet federal standards.

That could threaten the availability of the federal funds that cover about half of the $20.4 million that Maine spends annually to administer food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service issued a sternly worded letter to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services on Dec. 7. The letter from Kurt Messner, acting regional administrator for the USDA, says the ability of DHHS to provide timely nutrition assistance benefits to qualifying households has “deteriorated rapidly” since last year, when it ranked 36th in the country.

According to the letter, federal authorities have repeatedly tried to address the issue with DHHS, but the state has been unable to produce backlog data, and its efforts to correct the problem have not worked.

Under federal guidelines, DHHS should be able to process SNAP benefit requests within seven to 30 days. But from January through June of 2015, only 69 percent to 79 percent of Maine’s applications were processed in that time – well below the acceptable rate of 95 percent, Messner wrote.

“FNS expects to see swift and immediate action to progress toward 95 percent timeliness for SNAP application processing and eliminate any case processing backlog,” he wrote.

The federal agency also outlined a series of benchmarks for DHHS in correcting the problem, and said the department must provide federal regulators with weekly progress reports.

DELAYS UNINTENTIONAL, DHHS INSISTS

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew attributed the delays to implementation of a new application system. She took issue with suggestions that the administration was dragging its feet to discourage people from applying for the benefits, thereby driving down caseloads.

“I don’t dispute the numbers, but this notion that I’m hearing in the political rhetoric in response to this letter – that we would in any way delay someone who needs a benefit from getting that benefit – is preposterous,” she said in an interview.

“What we’re doing is taking that system, that paper-intensive system, and bringing it into this century to actually support a more accountable, more timely addressing of the needs of people who qualify for these benefits,” she said.

The department has frequently clashed with federal authorities over proposed changes to public assistance programs, including eligibility within its Medicaid program and putting recipients’ photos on benefit cards. DHHS also has been at odds with federal regulators over management of Riverview Psychiatric Center. Mayhew questioned whether DHHS has become a target of federal authorities who have “philosophical differences” with the LePage administration’s aggressive overhaul of its welfare system.

The letter from Messner comes as Mayhew, a rumored 2018 gubernatorial candidate, and the administration continue to highlight changes to welfare programs. Those changes have included new work requirements for SNAP recipients, which the administration says are responsible for 90 percent of the drop in adults receiving benefits. The administration also is seeking a federal waiver in order to prevent SNAP recipients from using their benefits to purchase sugary drinks and foods.

BENEFIT RECIPIENTS FALLING STEADILY

According to the most recent USDA data, 193,720 Mainers received food stamps in September. That number is down 10.8 percent from 217,115 in September 2014.

The average number of recipients was 252,860 in fiscal year 2012. The average has fallen steadily since then, to 249,119 in fiscal year 2013 and 230,536 in fiscal year 2014. The federal government issued $321.5 million in SNAP benefits to Mainers in fiscal year 2014.

Critics of the changes argue that DHHS is making it harder for Mainers to get the help they need. The letter from the Food and Nutrition Service is expected to bolster that argument.

Rep. Drew Gattine, a Westbrook Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said the federal warning fits a pattern in which the administration repeatedly fails to adhere to U.S. guidelines.

“There’s just a real difficulty on the part of the department to maintain these minimum standards,” he said.

Gattine said he has received numerous complaints from constituents about the department’s responsiveness to questions about SNAP applications, which in some cases are handled through a call center and not in person.

“It’s really challenging, and as a result people aren’t getting the services that they need,” he said.

Sen. Eric L. Brakey of Auburn, the Republican leader of the human services committee, said DHHS is already making improvements.

“It is important that our government agencies operate efficiently and effectively, particularly when it comes to ensuring those who truly need assistance are those who are receiving assistance,” he said.

The federal government pays 50 percent of the state’s cost to administer its SNAP program and all of the food costs. In 2014, the U.S. government paid about $10.2 million of Maine’s SNAP administrative costs.

Messner’s letter appeared to acknowledge the state’s difficulty in processing applications amid changes to its system. It recommended that DHHS allocate more staffing and overtime to address a backlog, noting that federal funds would pay for half of all state costs.

LOW-INCOME RESIDENTS COMPLAIN

Mayhew said DHHS already has authorized overtime to cut the backlog and speed up processing. She said the federal review took place between January and June, about the time the new application system was being put in place. In July, 87 percent of the applications were addressed within the 30 days prescribed by federal regulations, she said.

“I acknowledge that there are growing pains and transitional issues when making those kinds of significant changes,” she said. “This should be embraced, this huge improvement to the eligibility system. It’s unfortunate that they’re going to use this letter as a basis for attacking this administration when what is occurring – this transformational process within eligibility – is absolutely in the best interest of improving the responsiveness of DHHS.”

Christine Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group for low-income residents, said her organization has received numerous complaints about the delays in SNAP applications. In many instances, she said, applicants were confronted with “a mush of paperwork” and never received responses from DHHS.

“A lot of times these people will get a letter from the state and do what they’re supposed to do,” Hastedt said. “But then they don’t hear anything. They basically let it go. We’ve seen a lot of people that have had to reapply to get their food stamps back when they simply should have been re-certified because they were ongoing eligible people.”

She added, “The complications and the confusions caused by the delay led them to believe they weren’t going to get benefits anymore and they didn’t know why.”