Christopher Knox and his mother, Beverly Knox, have been frustrated by challenges in renewing her FoodShare and Medicaid benefits. Beverly Knox had brain surgery to remove a tumor and suffered a stroke nearly 30 years ago. She no longer has mobility in almost half her body. (Trisha Young / Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service)
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Changes in FoodShare and Medicaid requirements have caused benefits to be cut off for many and created difficulties for beneficiaries to get their applications reviewed or renewed.

And state workers are struggling to keep up.

Beverly Knox and her son Christopher Knox have had a front-row seat to the disruptions.

The long wait

Christopher Knox is the caretaker for his mother, who had brain surgery to remove a tumor and suffered a stroke nearly 30 years ago. She no longer has mobility in almost half her body.

The nightmare for them has looked like this:

“I was on hold with people from the (FoodShare) program for one and a half hours waiting to conduct my mom’s interview,” Knox said. “They asked me for my mom’s case number and put me on hold for another 20 minutes, and then an automated voice said something like: ‘We close at noon on Thursdays’ and ended the call.”

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services’ FoodShare call center is indeed closed at that time, which is not common knowledge for many people on these programs based on NNS interviews.

Knox said at least three times in June he endured two hours or more of wait times to secure a FoodShare interview for his mother so she could get the assistance she needed. 

Many times, Knox said, he was met with rude and disrespectful customer service. 

“She can communicate on her own, but ain’t no way in the world (she) would be able to do all this by herself,” Knox said. 

In addition to the family’s difficulty in getting the mother interviewed, Knox has had to send in documentation to again prove his mother’s medical condition for both FoodShare and Medicaid. 

“You need proof of everything,” he said.

‘All hands on deck’

Emergency FoodShare allotments ended in February, causing wholesale review of both FoodShare and Medicaid cases. In addition, work requirements for FoodShare and Medicaid recipients were reinstated earlier this year and are being phased out over nine months.

Jamie Kuhn, director of the Wisconsin Medicaid program, acknowledged during a call with the press the probability of long hold times. She said this is because of the high call volume, the hiring of new staff and the flood of cases that need to be reviewed.

“This is an unprecedented effort and all hands are on deck,”  Kuhn said. 

Knox was finally told by a call center employee to file a complaint with the Hunger Task Force, which works with the state Department of Health Services, or DHS, to expedite severe cases. 

“We are deeply concerned,” said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force.

During the pandemic, the federal government issued extra emergency allotments of FoodShare. And during the pandemic, more people were accepted into Medicaid programs. Many requirements, such as being employed and having proof of income, were lifted or lightened. 

Rise in FoodShare, Medicaid recipients

The number of FoodShare recipients in 2019 averaged 609,359 a month in Wisconsin, according to DHS numbers. But despite the winding down and official declaration of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin has seen an average of 709,832 FoodShare recipients per month from January to June. That’s about 100,000 more Wisconsinites accessing FoodShare a month. 

For Wisconsin Medicaid, which includes programs like BadgerCare Plus, about 1.2 million people were receiving state medical insurance before the pandemic. That number has now risen to 1.6 million Wisconsinites. The DHS estimates that 1 in 4 residents will have to go through the renewal process over the next year. 

Studies from the Urban Institute and NORC estimate that at least 300,000 Wisconsinites will have to transition off of Medicaid. These studies also estimate that anywhere from 49,000 and 72,000 Wisconsinites will become uninsured. 

According to the DHS, more than 32,000 people who took action to renew Medicaid services were found ineligible in the month of June. 

Emergency FoodShare allotments ended in February and Wisconsin Medicaid programs resumed routine operations in May. Many of those Medicaid cases were suspended for people who did not submit renewals on time. 

As a result of the emergency aid, not as many people went to food pantries during the pandemic emergency period, Tussler said. That has since stopped. 

The Hunger Task Force saw a 20% increase in the use of food pantries from January to June and a 36% increase in the use of meal sites during the same time. 

What else to know 

Tussler urged people to look at and read their mail from the state and make sure their contact info is updated for these programs and to submit requested information as soon as possible.

The DHS has temporarily lifted the requirement to interview for FoodShare renewals if the program has sufficient information regarding the applicant’s case. The DHS states this is meant to streamline the hefty volume of renewals and mounting hold times. Applicants still have a right to interview if they choose. Applicants and members may still need to submit proof and verify information. 

Residents can visit the Hunger Task Force’ Robles FoodShare Resource Center at 723 W. Historic Mitchell St., which also has bilingual staff, and Alicia’s Place FoodShare Resource Center in the Midtown Center, 4144 N. 56th St. 

Find food and meal pantries at this map. If you or someone you know needs emergency food, please dial 2-1-1. To call using a cell phone, dial 414-773-0211 or call toll free 1-866-211-3380.

While FoodShare interviews must be completed via a phone call or in person, Medicaid renewals can be done completely online on the state’s ACCESS website or app. 

A version of this story was first published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, a nonprofit news organization that covers Milwaukee’s diverse neighborhoods.

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