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Colorado placed on corrective action plan by federal government for slow SNAP approval rate

EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. (KRDO) - Colorado is one of the slowest states in the country at processing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applications. In fact, it’s so slow the federal government forced the state into a corrective action plan.

The Fresh Start Center, a food bank in northeast Colorado Springs, has seen a 40% increase in users. Grant Winger, the director, said this is partly due to inflation and increasing food prices, but he also said people are waiting months for their SNAP benefits to be approved.

“A lot of families are just one step away from hitting a time of trauma or crisis where they don't know where that next meal is going to come from,” Winger said. “When you face that type of emergency where you can't afford groceries, what do you do until those benefits come?”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Colorado was the fifth slowest state in the country in 2022 at processing SNAP applications. The state’s rates didn’t improve in 2023, so in October, the federal government forced Colorado into a corrective action plan.

The letter from the USDA addressed to the Colorado Department of Human Services said “low application processing timeliness rates have a real and significant impact on eligible families who struggle to put food on the table,” and “Colorado is severely out of compliance with Federal requirements.”

Those requirements claim expedited cases must be approved within seven days and regular cases within 30 days. States must meet those timeliness standards 95% of the time to be compliant with federal requirements.

Colorado’s timeliness rate in 2022 was 74%. According to data obtained by KRDO13 Investigates, much of the blame for those low numbers can fall on El Paso County.

“When we're behind, we pull a large amount of the state with us,” said Karen Logan, the Economic Benefits Services Director for El Paso County.

Data from the Colorado Department of Human Services showed El Paso County approved only a quarter of SNAP applications on time in 2023 — one of the worst timeliness percentages in the state.

Logan said the county is seeing the largest caseload ever, receiving hundreds of applications a week. Right now it takes the county about 43 days to process a regular SNAP application — 13 days longer than the federal requirement.

“We can process 800-900 cases in a week but have a thousand people apply and it feels like we're stepping backward, when in actuality those 900 (approvals) for those families, that's a big deal,” Logan said.

To address the backlog, the county is requiring employees to work mandatory overtime and managers are even processing applications. A couple of days ago, the state also rolled out a new automated system to process applications. Logan said the county is in the testing phase but believes it will cut down processing times significantly because employees won’t have to input information for each applicant manually. 

“We're kind of an all-hands-on-deck process right now,” Logan said. “With as many people as we can, we are pulling them into the fold to help us do what it is that we need to do.”

These changes went into effect mid-November and the initial results were promising. The county’s timeliness rate in November was one of the lowest in 2023 at 20.77%. However, after the change, December’s rate increased by nearly 17%.

In the three months since those changes, the county has slowly cut into the application backlog, decreasing it from 12,000 to 7,000, as of Tuesday morning.

“We've been able to move the needle,” Logan said. “Our pending caseload is getting smaller and smaller, which means that we're getting closer and closer to being timely.”

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Quinn Ritzdorf

Quinn is a reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about him here.


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