By Mary Haberland, Managing Attorney, Florida Senior Legal Helpline, and Project Specialist, CERA
To appreciate the potential efficiency and power of a statewide senior legal hotline which is well-integrated with the state’s III-B legal services providers’ network, we can look at a food stamp (SNAP) case that started with the Florida Senior Legal Helpline (FSLH), and ended a year later with an estimated $1,177,830 in retroactive SNAP benefits payable to low-income Floridians.
Client was an 84 year-old widower who lived alone in rural Calhoun County, Florida, and whose sole source of income was Social Security of $948/month. The closest Legal Services office was an hour from his home. In 2013, Client, who had received food stamps for 20 years and had recently recertified, was surprised to receive a notice informing him that he was no longer eligible for food stamps because of his income. After unsuccessful attempts to resolve his eligibility issue with his local Department of Children and Families (DCF) office, Client turned to the internet, where he found information about the FSLH, managed by Bay Area Legal Services in Tampa, Florida. During his telephone intake, Client gave the SLH attorney permission to access his online public benefits file, and further agreed she could share the file with a public benefits attorney from Florida Legal Services (FLS), which provides technical assistance and support to attorneys working in Florida Legal Services and Legal Aid offices. The attorneys’ review and research, coupled with the client’s telephone input, led them to conclude that Florida’s SNAP eligibility standard was inconsistent with the federal regulation. On the basis of that conclusion, the SLH attorney advised the client to file for a fair hearing. The client agreed, and the SLH attorney referred him to his local program through their cooperative referral partnership. The local program attorney filed for a fair hearing on client’s behalf, supported by FLS advocates, and additionally, partnered with them to file a rule challenge with the State Division of Administrative Hearings on the ground that the rule was inconsistent with federal law.
Both efforts were highly successful. As a result of the fair hearing, Client’s individual benefits were restored, and through the administrative rule challenge, his case triggered a stipulation which bears his name. The result granted new or restored benefits to more than 33,000 SNAP recipients, and favorably changed the eligibility determination for applicants from the inconsistent state standard, to the federal standard.
With a single telephone call to a resource he discovered online, a senior of extremely limited means who faced a two-hour round trip to the nearest Legal Aid office was able to set a process in motion which not only resolved his legal issue, but which ultimately affected thousands like him. This outcome was possible because a senior legal helpline provides a convenient point of entry into the free legal services network, and a center for collaboration among legal providers at all levels of the senior services delivery system.