NC has money to resume funding WIC program

jneff@newsobserver.comOctober 10, 2013 

North Carolina has enough federal money to provide food to the state’s low-income mothers and their babies, the state budget director said Thursday.

Art Pope said there is enough money on hand to fully fund the WIC program, officially known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

On Tuesday, the state Department of Health and Human Services stopped issuing vouchers for the program – making North Carolina the only state to do so. Secretary Aldona Wos said the federal shutdown had dried up funding for the program.

Wos said in a news release that about 80 percent of eligible clients had been issued food benefits for October.

“Federal WIC funds available to the state will be sufficient to cover WIC vouchers already issued for the month of October, but not sufficient to issue additional vouchers,” the press release said.

It is not clear what changed between Tuesday and Thursday, but DHHS reversed course late Thursday after an inquiry from The News & Observer.

Bruce Alexander, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees WIC at the federal level, told The Charlotte Observer in an email statement, “USDA is actively engaged in a conversation with the state of North Carolina to ensure their WIC program is reopened to all recipients.”

On Thursday evening, DHHS issued a statement saying local health departments are being notified to resume issuing WIC vouchers. The statement said the department has “secured additional funds” to continue the program as of Friday.

“Because of the uncertainty of the federal shutdown, we know this may be only a temporary solution,” Wos said in the statement. “But we are committed to meeting the needs of the people of North Carolina.”

When the federal government shut down Oct. 1, the agriculture department said states could tap two sources of funding to keep the program running through October: unspent money from the previous year, and emergency set-aside funds known as contingency funds.

Voucher spending

Pope said those funds, plus expected rebates from infant formula manufacturers, amount to $21 million. North Carolina’s WIC program, with an annual budget of $205 million, spends about $17 million a month.

One reason the program has breathing room is that vouchers aren’t all spent in the month they are issued. Typically about 69 percent of the vouchers are spent in the month they are issued, Pope said.

Nationally more than 8.9 million pregnant women, mothers and children younger than 5 living near or below the poverty line rely on the program’s supplemental vouchers for healthy food, breastfeeding support, infant formula and other necessary items. The program was begun in 1972.

DHHS said the program in September provided supplemental food, health care referrals and nutrition education to close to 264,000 women, infants and young children in North Carolina. The program, DHHS noted, also “impacts more than 2,000 local grocery stores ad food businesses around the state.”

Also on Tuesday, DHHS told 140 agencies that run supportive employment services to stop work immediately because no federal grant money was left to pay for their contracts. The agencies train people with disabilities for jobs or have assistants working alongside them.

Wos issued the statements Tuesday while she was defending her agency to lawmakers. DHHS has come under attack for high salaries paid to inexperienced staffers and high-paying personal services contracts. The agency also has had to defend itself for rolling out a new Medicaid claims payment system that has frustrated doctors and other health providers who say it is glitch-ridden.

Neff: 919-829-4516

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