November 20, 2023

John M.
Chief, Quality Control Branch
Program Accountability and Administration Division
Food and Nutrition Service
1320 Braddock Place, 5th Floor
Alexandria, VA 22314
SNAPQCReform@usda.gov

Re: Docket Number FNS-2020-0016: Provisions to Improve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s Quality Control System

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to make changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Quality Control System.

The Center for Community Solutions (Community Solutions) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank based in Ohio that aims to improve health, social, and economic conditions through research, policy analysis, and communication. Community Solutions appreciates FNS for welcoming comments on all elements of this proposed rulemaking, including “potential impacts, direct and indirect, of these changes on State agencies and SNAP households.” As a nonprofit organization committed to improving equitable access to the SNAP program, Community Solutions’ comments focus primarily on the impact the proposed rulemaking is likely to have on SNAP participants.

The SNAP Quality Control (QC) system has an outsized influence on the policy and process choices that SNAP agency administrators make to locally operate the program. A wide range of choices – including the type and amount of verification documents required before SNAP benefits can be approved, how often SNAP recipients must report changes or renew benefits, and the frequency and length of mandatory SNAP interviews – are all driven, in direct and indirect ways, by SNAP’s QC system. Even when SNAP certification policy rules allow for other, less burdensome approaches to SNAP case processing, the overarching influence of QC rules leads many states to add complexity to their SNAP application, enrollment, and renewal processes that make it harder for eligible SNAP households to connect to this critical nutrition benefit.

For this reason, FNS should carefully consider the current – and future – ways that SNAP QC review requirements influence the rest of SNAP program operations. In addition to ensuring any modified QC process have statistical validity, FNS must also ensure that changes are evaluated through a lens of how those changes will impact the customer experience for SNAP applicants and recipients and promote equitable access to the program. All SNAP applicants and recipients deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, including for their personal privacy. The SNAP application and enrollment process can be very challenging and intrusive. Community Solutions implores FNS to not add to that burden on families by incentivizing SNAP agencies to more aggressively pursue household information for QC review purposes through intrusive means, such as communicating with collateral contacts without consent (or with coerced consent.)

With this overarching principle in mind, Community Solutions is generally supportive of the following proposed changes:

  • Shifting QC review sampling from active case month to active case action. Community Solutions agrees with FNS that reviewing case actions makes more sense for SNAP recipients and SNAP agencies, as relevant household information will be more readily available and QC reviews can occur in a timelier manner.

Although Community Solutions is also hopeful that this change will reduce the number of incomplete QC review cases, FNS did not present any information in the Preamble to the proposed rule to suggest this assertion is evidence-based. The 2016 study on QC completion rates referenced in the Preamble recommends this change, but did not cite any pilot projects or research studies that test this theory. Given how many other changes in this proposed rule stem from the core expectation that switching from case month to case action will improve completion rates, Community Solutions encourages FNS to explore ways to more robustly model and test the impact of this change before finalizing this proposed rule.

  • Allowing phone-based interviews as the default method for QC reviews. Considering so many SNAP business processes have shifted to phone-based systems over the past decade, Community Solutions agrees that many SNAP recipients are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with face-to-face meetings with SNAP agency staff, especially in their homes. Community Solutions also agrees with FNS that in-person QC interviews should still be available if requested by the SNAP household, including at mutually- agreeable community-based locations outside of their home, if preferred.

In addition to the changes Community Solutions supports, there are several proposed changes that raise questions or concerns:

  • Incomplete QC cases deemed 100 percent payment errors. While Community Solutions understands the general rationale that FNS provided in the Preamble for this change, FNS did not adequately explain or model the impact that such an enormous process change is likely to have on:
    • State agency behavior, including the risk of over-pursuit and harassment of households to compel them to comply (a practice that community-based organizations unfortunately still see in some parts of the country); and
    • State and National Payment Error Rates, which significantly impact public perception of the program. By labeling all incomplete QC cases as 100 percent errors, payment error rates will likely be artificially inflated. 100 percent errors will wrongly imply that SNAP household circumstances that could not be verified – in some cases simply because the household did not receive or understand a written notice– were never eligible for SNAP. Elevated QC error rates will likely cause confusion and concern from anyone outside of the SNAP QC field and could cause policymakers to introduce harmful policy changes in response to a perceived, but non-existent, program integrity problem.

Before finalizing this proposed change, Community Solutions strongly recommends that FNS consider alternative ways of designating incomplete cases that will not drive up Payment Error Rates. For example, FNS could publish the dollar amount of errors related to incomplete cases separately from true eligibility errors identified during the QC review process.

  • Significantly increasing the SNAP QC sample size. Although FNS explains in the Preamble why an increased sample size will allow for proper stratification of the new sampling frame to avoid oversampling cases with shorter certification periods (which is very important to account for), FNS did not acknowledge that this change would subject many more SNAP households to the extra burden of cooperating with SNAP’s QC review process. Given that the consequence for non-cooperation is the loss of SNAP benefits for the entire household, critical nutrition benefits could be disrupted for many more low-income families if they do not receive, cannot understand, or do not trust information from the SNAP agency about how to comply. Given how over-burdened and over-policed SNAP households already feel, FNS should seriously consider whether a 30 percent increase in the QC sample size is truly necessary, and if there are alternative ways to evaluate program accuracy outside of individual household interviews in all circumstances.

The Preamble notes that FNS considered an ex parte process of case reviews, but dismissed the possibility due to the likelihood that it would conflict with existing certification policy options related to upfront document verification, such as for shelter costs. Yet, this proposal is still likely to lead to excessive upfront verification (as described below), without the benefit of reducing the number of SNAP households who will be required to comply with a full QC investigation.

In addition to the significant burden that an increase in QC review sample size places on SNAP households, it would also overtax SNAP agencies. Community Solutions knows SNAP agencies are already stretched incredibly thin, including in counties throughout Ohio. Furthermore, Community Solutions saw low staffing levels and high vacancy rates reach a critical failure point in a few states in 2022 and 2023. If adequate staffing for the QC review process must be prioritized over SNAP certification processes – as currently required by FNS – the SNAP agency workload crisis could get even worse.

  • Risk of encourage SNAP agencies to over-verify during the certification process. While Community Solutions generally agrees with FNS that moving to reviewing case actions instead of case months has several advantages, one unintended consequence may be that State agencies could begin routinely exceeding mandatory verification requirements at certification and recertification in order to satisfy QC review standards. Under the proposed system, State agencies will be able to minimize the number of incomplete QC review cases if they collect documentary evidence for every eligibility factor during the certification process “but only if the evidence used in the eligibility determination meets or exceeds QC verification standards found in the FNS Handbook 310.”[1]

The proposed process differs from the current process where the review month could be months after the original certification month, so some additional information collection is necessary, regardless of how much documentation is already in the case file. Under current practice, only the small sub-set of SNAP households selected for QC review are subject to additional, burdensome documentation requirements, but the majority of households benefit from more flexible upfront requirements (e.g. not verifying shelter costs unless questionable). The current process also allows State agencies to minimize the amount of low-value work that caseworkers complete and focus their limited capacity on verifying the most error-prone areas (e.g. variable work income, complex household composition situations, etc.).

One possible way to mitigate the risk of State agencies over-verifying at certification to satisfy QC standards – potentially at the expense of accessible and timely application processing – could be for FNS to add transparency to its process of developing and updating the FNS Handbook 310, which currently determines what “meeting or exceeding QC verification standards” means. At present, changes to the Handbook 310 are done without any public input or opportunity for comment and can have significant consequences for State agencies and SNAP households, as evidenced by FNS recent changes to sections 751 and 752 of the Handbook 310.[2]

  • Insufficient new protections for SNAP recipients selected for QC review. The proposed rule is an opportunity for FNS to build robust new protections for SNAP households into SNAP’s QC review process. Therefore, Community Solutions urges FNS explore adding such protections into the final rule. There are two specific types of protections Community Solutions recommends:
    • Better protect clients’ right to privacy by limiting the types of data collection practices State agencies are allowed to use to pursue information from households as part of a QC review. New protections should include limitations on the use of collateral contacts in certain circumstances (e.g. domestic violence situations, housing instability where families may be doubled-up, etc.) as well as limitations on when and how QC reviewers use credit checks and other techniques that can negatively impact the SNAP household under review. FNS could create such limits without penalizing States or SNAP households when some information is missing in these circumstances. Furthermore, rather than using this proposed rule to add language at 7 CFR 275.12(c)(1)(iv) to clarify that States do not need to obtaining household consent for collateral contact use unless required by State law, FNS should propose language detailing when and why it might be inappropriate to use collateral contacts and how State Quality Control Reviewers should handle these situations. Under no circumstances should this QC rulemaking process lead to States having broader latitude to violate client privacy by sharing personal information about their SNAP benefit usage in ways that could harm households.
    • Provide more robust standards for use of plain language (i.e. at a fourth grade reading level or below) in any written communication from the State agency, as well as stronger language access requirements to better serve individuals with Limited English Proficiency (LEP). On language access in particular, Community Solutions found the FNS report on QC completion rates to be woefully inadequate in exploring when and how language barriers contribute to incomplete cases, as the report merely noted that 80 percent of SNAP agency employees who were surveyed reported that use of contracted Language Line services worked well. Community Solutions encourages FNS to more rigorously evaluate the role that insufficient language access services, as well as overly complex language on notices, contribute to incomplete cases and consider using the final QC rule to mitigate these barriers with new standards.
  • Unclear impact on SNAP overpayment claims. The proposed rule did not clearly articulate the impact that changes to the QC review process might have on overpayment claims. Specifically, it is unclear whether incomplete cases that get counted as 100 percent payment errors would then trigger an overpayment claim on the SNAP household. This would seem unfair, as the SNAP household may well have been substantively eligible, but due to the communication challenges described above, were unable or unaware of the need to cooperate with the QC review process. Community Solutions recommends that, in the final rule, FNS explicitly state that no overpayment claims will stem from a QC reviewer’s inability to contact the SNAP household or verifying information as long as there is no proof that the client was substantively ineligible.
  • Unclear impact on expedited approvals with postponed verification. In the context of postponed verification for SNAP applicants entitled to expedited processing, the proposed rule states that “if an eligibility worker does not sufficiently document an element to indicate they properly postponed it, the exclusion would not apply and any variances arising from errors related to the element would then be included in the error determination process.”[3] This appears to say that an eligibility worker must document in the case record why each piece of postponed verification (e.g. income, household composition, shelter costs) was postponed –and if they fail to do so, the postponed verification was done in error. This seems like an unnecessarily burdensome requirement that could further delay timely processing of expedited cases, which is already a significant problem in many states. Given that roughly 41 percent of SNAP applicants are entitled to expedited processing, any change to expectations on how expedited cases are processed could have major implications for State agencies and SNAP households alike.[4] For this reason, Community Solutions strongly recommends that FNS more clearly articulate this section in the final rule to ensure new procedural requirements are not being imposed on eligibility workers for expedited cases.
  • Allowing State agencies to issue a Request for Quality Control Contact (RFQCC) and utilize a one-month case suspension prior to case termination. From the preamble language, FNS seems to imply that this new process will benefit SNAP customers by allowing their benefits to be reinstated more easily after complying with a QC request, rather than facing a termination and being required to reapply. However, it is unclear whether this new process would also allow State agencies to determine that a household has refused to cooperate without first making affirmative contact with the household. This would be a very problematic departure from FNS’ longstanding policy stating that States can only terminate SNAP benefits for refusal to cooperate after the State agency has made contact with the household (via a Certified Mail-Return Receipt Requested letter, phone contact to schedule an appointment, etc.)

Community Solutions greatly appreciates FNS’ attention to the substantial need for updates to SNAP’s Quality Control review process, as articulated in the proposed rule. Given that FNS is proposing some significant changes without a fully understanding all of the impacts and unintended consequences those changes might have, Community Solutions encourages FNS to consider doing a pilot or rigorous study before finalizing this proposed rule. Finally, Community Solutions urges FNS to consider leveraging this rulemaking opportunity to build in more robust protections for SNAP households by adopting a “do no harm” philosophy in all future Quality Control review processes.

 

[1] https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2023-20023/p-201

[2] See APHSA Letter re: FY2022 changes to Sections 751 and 752 of the 310 Handbook:
https://files.constantcontact.com/391325ca001/7a5520ba-85a1-4aad-a7ea-35236623ca8f.pdf   

[3] https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2023-20023/p-218  

[4] https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/resource-files/Characteristics2020.pdf