DUNEDIN — It was a quiet day last week at Ellen Marchand's mobile home. After months of worry, she could relax.
Social Security Administration officials had told her in May she owed $10,000, a debt that dwarfed the retiree's limited budget. They incorrectly said she wasn't a citizen, working off a glitch in their records. Then they admitted they were wrong.
Marchand was elated. Then the next letter came.
This time, it was from the Florida Department of Children and Families, announcing a change to her food stamps. Her monthly $120 allotment, which she depended on to live, would drop to $16.
She read the letter, then read it again. From next month to November 2011, she'd get two quarters a day for food. The letter gave no reason for the change, only listing the Florida statute on food stamps and a few hotlines. She called, stayed on the phone for five hours and never reached a human helper.
The fear, worry and confusion returned. She was a widow, living alone, at the age of 82. How could she eat on $4 a week?
"It's very emotionally disturbing," Marchand said. "I kind of keep wondering what the hell the mailman's going to bring next."
But like the first time, the government decided it had made a mistake.
After a call to DCF from the St. Petersburg Times on Friday, the agency realized its error and called Marchand with good news: her $120 allotment was back to normal.
DCF spokesman Terry Field called the problem an extremely rare example of when data exchange goes awry. Marchand, again, was happy.
Here's how the latest problem started.
Marchand is one of more than 83,000 statewide to collect food stamps through SUNCAP, a program for seniors, the blind and disabled living on Supplemental Security Income. Since 2005, the program has enrolled the needy through a partnership with Social Security — no application required.
That automatic system allowed the agencies to keep the records in synch, but it also transmitted false information in the federal database to the state.
Marchand was to be paid more than usual, Social Security reported, to make up for missing benefits. But that skewed the Department of Children and Families' calculations to how much she would be eligible for. Hence, the $16 a month.
The quick fix, Field said, was a testament to the state agency's recent emphasis on reducing errors, even as the need for food stamps has nearly doubled in two years. The DCF was awarded more than $7 million last month for having a 0.85 percent error rate — the best in the nation.
But included in that 0.85 percent are people like Marchand, scared for the future and confused by the automated system put in place to assist her. She's thankful her issues were resolved. But how many out there, she wondered, are still missing out?
"When you talk to anyone about it, it's the same thing. You're not going to get through," Marchand said. "How the heck do you know" what to do?
Drew Harwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.