ATLANTA -- "You're not going to let that one go are you?" asked Gov. Nathan Deal as WXIA reporter Rebecca Lindstrom tried to ask him about the state's troubled food stamp program.
Shortly after the exchange, a spokesperson from the governor's office announced that on Thursday, DHS Commissioner Keith Horton would ask the federal government for temporary permission to immediately approve food stamp applications for expedited cases, essentially the poorest of the poor, as it worked through the backlog.
If granted, applicants would still have their eligibility checked as employees were able to work through the cases. If the beneficiary was ruled ineligible, benefits would be cut.
In March, after the USDA threatened to cut $75 million in federal funding if systemic problems weren't fixed, DHS admitted it had more than 166,000 past due food stamp and medicaid cases.
Employees were ordered to mandatory overtime, and DHS says those efforts helped clear the bulk of past due applications. On Wednesday, the Governor praised their dedication.
"We're doing a great job. We're getting out of a situation that was created over a long period of time and yes I knew about it but I did not know that it was of the magnitude that it apparently it was. But when we have state employees that are willing to work seven days a week around the clock to deal with a problem, that's pretty good dedication and I think we're doing a pretty good job handling it," said Governor Deal.
11Alive News has questioned when the Governor knew about the severity of the problems and if he was told all he needed to know. We obtained emails that show his office knew something was wrong in November, but leave an impression that everything is under control.
November 4th, Commissioner Keith Horton emailed the Governor's Chief Operating Officer to alert him of a mailing issue that caused some food stamp recipients to have "their benefits cut off" creating a "higher call volume." He also reported "technical difficulties with the new call system."
Three days later, DHS reported the mailing problem impacted 96,500 food stamp and medicaid recipients. On the 27th, the governor's office got a heads up, the media was starting to ask questions. By then the USDA had already started demanding answers.
"We're doing a great job. We're getting out of a situation that was created over a long period of time," said the Governor.
But Lindstrom persisted asking about new data sent to the Governor's office that showed even in the week of March 7th, 72% of the people calling the hotline used to process applications and answer questions, 72% of callers were dropped by no fault of their own.
"Is that good government, is that a system that's working?" asked Lindstrom.
"We're trying to improve significantly, we think that it has already. We think it will continue to improve," the Governor responded.
The USDA is expected to make its decision on just how much Georgia's system has improved early next week.