August 31, 2010 in Business, City

SNAP smooths process for helping residents with winter heat bills

Process for qualifying applicants will start earlier, and stay open longer
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane County residents seeking help paying heating bills should encounter fewer hassles and less frustration this winter, according to SNAP, the agency that administers that service.

In recent years SNAP waited until later in the year before letting low-income residents call to schedule interviews for assistance. It also accepted those applicant calls just two days a week.

This year SNAP will start handling calls on Sept. 10 and process applications on a Monday-Saturday basis, said agency spokesman Ron Hardin.

Working with Spokane-area energy utilities, SNAP hired a consultant, David Thompson, to make the system more efficient.

Hardin said the previous system produced numerous complaints by those who could not get through phone lines when SNAP began setting appointments. “There was a bottleneck in the system” that left many callers frustrated and caused many to contact Avista or another utility, trying to resolve the problem, Hardin said.

The demand for heating assistance has soared due to the economy, Hardin noted. SNAP helped 14,061 county households last winter, up sharply from 13,138 and 9,194 the two previous years. Many learn of the program after calling Avista or Inland Power and Light to discuss payment options.

Last year the program provided assistance totalling more than $7 million.

The logjam has occurred in recent years because SNAP has 18 phone lines, but only eight callers could be connected at one time, Hardin said.

Every applicant must come into an office to fill out documents that prove their income qualifies them for assistance. The exceptions are homebound applicants, who are interviewed in their residences.

Thompson was referred to SNAP by Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, a SNAP board member. She knew Thompson after he did two contracts for the county in the past two years.

A “problem resolution consultant,” Thompson said he spotted two areas for SNAP to change: Start the application process earlier, plus use the Web for processing more of the load.

Last year SNAP started the two-day-per-week intake at the end of October, said Hardin. SNAP always waited until Congress authorized the winter federal assistance budget, he said.

By not waiting, SNAP expects it can now schedule roughly 4,500 applicants by phone, plus another 2,000 via the Web. Last year SNAP permitted 250 Web applications per week. Without that limit now, SNAP’s Web system will set up 2,000 interviews between Sept. 10 and January.

“The idea was that if SNAP would open the Web process more broadly, then fewer people will have to hit the phone redial button,” Thompson said.

Thompson interviewed some of last year’s applicants. One resident, he said, would use his phone redial button and keep calling for hours until he would get through.

In early January SNAP will look at funding to decide how many more energy assistance applicants it will process, Hardin said.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email