ACLU Sues R.I. Over Computer System For Benefits

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The American Civil Liberties Union said Monday that it's suing Rhode Island over its computer system for benefits programs.

The ACLU Rhode Island chapter alleges some food stamp recipients weren't given adequate notice they would have to reimburse the state for benefits they were allegedly overpaid years earlier. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Carmen Correa, of Woonsocket, and others who receive benefits in Rhode Island.

Department of Human Services Director Courtney Hawkins said in a statement Monday that she's confident the claims process is compliant with applicable regulations. She said she's disappointed the ACLU decided litigation was the best course of action, as the department has been open to feedback throughout the process.

Correa received a letter demanding more than $1,900 that the state calculated she was overpaid from 2014 to 2015, according to the lawsuit. She was instructed to repay the money or enter into a repayment agreement within a month, the lawsuit said.

The ACLU argues there's a high probability the data used to calculate overpayments is wrong. The computer system has been plagued with problems since the state launched it in 2016, despite warnings from the federal government it wasn't ready.

But the human services department said these claims are for overpayments before the implementation of the system, or due to intentional program violations. About 200 notices were sent out in a pilot project approved by the federal government, totaling $332,000 in established claims, the department said Monday.

The lawsuit asks a judge to stop the state from issuing demand letters without adequate written notice and from taking any action or reducing benefits based on demand letters previously issued.

The ACLU sued the state in 2016, saying it had failed to process food stamp applications and issue benefits within the time frames mandated by the federal government. They reached a settlement, and the court appointed a special master to ensure that residents receive food stamps on time.