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La Plata County looks to partner with other counties for human services

Labor challenges have led to a backlog in processing of public benefits
Jessica Dalla-Cundiff, a case worker for La Plata County’s Human Services, in a children’s interview room in April 2020. Workforce shortages have led to a backlog in cases for La Plata County residents seeking public benefits. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

La Plata County’s Human Services Department is looking to partner with Otero and Pitkin counties to weather a backlog in cases created by turnover and workforce shortages.

County commissioners will vote Tuesday to approve intergovernmental agreements between La Plata and Otero and Pitkin counties that will allow the Human Services Department to outsource work to the two counties to catch up on processing public benefits for La Plata County residents.

“It is terrible that we are behind and we’re delayed in providing benefits for people who are eligible for them,” said Martha Johnson, director of Human Services. “We know it increases the stress on people who are already in a difficult situation. My hope is that this will start getting better right away as we’re starting to get more help from other counties.”

The intergovernmental agreements will allow human services staff members in Otero and Pitkin counties to take on some of La Plata County’s caseload, helping to review eligibility and changes to residents’ benefits.

Staff members from Otero and Pitkin counties will either assist La Plata County during their regular workweek or their county administrations have approved them for overtime.

“They’re paying their folks for overtime to work on our cases and then we reimburse that county for that time, which is absolutely worth it for us,” Johnson said.

The agreements will not affect the county’s budget because of the money the Human Services Department has saved from staffing vacancies, according to county documents.

La Plata County’s Human Services Department usually has 17 eligibility technicians who help residents apply for and navigate benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid. However, the department currently has 10.

The department was fully staffed in September 2021, but since then it has experienced significant turnover with no single cause. Employees have left the county because of family emergencies, health issues or opportunities such as graduate school, Johnson said.

The Human Services Department has struggled to hire replacements. Over the last year, the department has advertised for positions six times.

Before June 2021, the department averaged 27 applicants in each pool for its eligibility technicians. Since June 2021, it has averaged six.

“It’s just been a much smaller pool to pull from as far as people who not only are qualified but also that it’d be a good match for them,” Johnson said.

Three new technicians will join the county in the next two months, but it takes at least another three months for those technicians to go through training and gain some independence to conduct client interviews and accurately process cases.

A number of the county’s current technicians are also still in training, Johnson said.

Staff shortages have led to a backlog for those seeking public assistance, with significant impacts for those in La Plata County who often need the most help.

Those who receive assistance must report changes in income, household size and address to the Human Services Department. Eligibility technicians then process that information, which can alter benefits and the notices they receive.

“Those (changes) we have gotten really behind on, which may or may not impact somebody’s benefits directly, but it definitely can have an impact as far as if they’re not getting the information that they should be receiving in the mail or if they should be getting increased benefits because of a change,” Johnson said.

The county has also been delayed in completing client interviews, particularly for food assistance.

New applicants to assistance programs go through interviews as part of the process to determine their eligibility. Some programs like Medicaid also require the county’s Human Services Department to redetermine clients’ eligibility annually.

Delays in processing applicants and benefit changes often lead to delays in providing benefits for those who are eligible, worsening the stresses for people who are often in crisis. Clients still receive any benefits they are eligible for as their applications or reviews are being processing, but they receive them retroactively, Johnson said.

“If somebody needs (assistance) in May and they get it in August that’s difficult for those months in between,” she said.

Exacerbating the strain is the significant increase in Medicaid enrollment and eligibility the department has seen during the coronavirus pandemic.

Nationally, Medicaid enrollment grew nearly 25% between February 2020 and March 2022, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

La Plata County has been working with Otero County since May to address its backlog, and the county is in discussions with another two counties in addition to Pitkin County. The county is also one of the first two counties to receive help from a new state program that assists with the processing of Medicaid applications.

Durango’s strong support network for those in need, including the Durango Food Bank and Manna soup kitchen, has also helped the county to blunt some of the impacts for those who rely on assistance and are affected by the Human Services Department’s workforce shortage, Johnson said.

The Human Services Department plans to use La Plata County’s newly implemented wage scale, which has raised the pay of entry-level jobs, and a move to more flexibility with schedules and remote work to attract more eligible technicians.

The goal is to catch up with cases this fall so the county no longer needs to rely on outside support, Johnson said.

“We’re hoping that between the help from the other counties and our other folks who are coming on and getting trained that by October we will be all caught up and stay caught up,” she said.

ahannon@durangoherald.com



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