Federal money for food stamp management could be suspended in March

lbonner@newsobserver.comJanuary 24, 2014 

Federal money that helps run food stamp programs will be cut off in March if the state doesn’t show progress in clearing waiting lists in the next two weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned this week.

In a Jan. 23 letter, the USDA said it “is alarmed by the persistent problems despite our extensive technical assistance and repeated communications concerning the severity of the situation. Citizens of North Carolina that need help putting food on the table are not receiving the basic level of responsiveness and quality of service that they deserve from their government.”

If the state doesn’t show improvements by Feb. 10, it will get a formal warning that its administrative money will be suspended. If the state’s response to the formal warning is inadequate, administrative funds totaling about $88 million a year will be shut off March 12.

In response, Wayne Black, director of DHHS’ Division of Social Services, sent a letter to county directors of social services calling for “ ‘all hands on deck’ as we would do in the case of an emergency.”

Federal money for administration goes to the state, and counties seek reimbursement for half their administrative costs.

Gov. Pat McCrory, DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke about the backlog Thursday afternoon, said DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry. The USDA was confident that the state is making “a good faith effort,” Henry said, but state officials were also notified that a stern letter was coming.

Backlogs started to build last summer with the expanded use of a new software program called NC FAST. The program was intended to improve efficiency and speed public benefits to those eligible. But the result was a growing applications backlog as many county workers struggled with the new system.

The USDA first warned the state in December that its federal funds were in jeopardy. After news of possible federal sanctions broke, state officials said the backlog wasn’t as bad as it looked because some of applications collecting dust were duplicates representing people who were already getting benefits. DHHS started eliminating duplicates.

The state has also stepped up its communication with counties, because county offices are responsible for signing people up for benefits and will lose millions if administrative funds are suspended.

“The latest USDA letter poses a significant challenge to the county DSS offices,” John Eller, vice president of the N.C. Association of County Directors of Social Services, said in a prepared statement. The association met with DHHS officials Friday, “and we have a multi-faceted plan” to meet deadlines for processing applications, Eller said.

The USDA is still not pleased with the totals, or updated information coming from the state. The state did not send weekly status reports as it agreed to in November, and twice submitted contradictory data, the federal letter said.

The letter notes that the backlog as of Jan. 21 exceeded 23,000 households, with 8,327 waiting more than three months. Federal law requires that applications be processed within 30 days.

State totals dated Thursday show counties missed deadlines for 19,974 applications. Of those, 8,963 were for hardship cases, representing households that have almost no money. Under federal law, hardship applications must be processed within seven days. But nearly 1,400 of those applications have been pending for more than four months, according to state data, and more than 2,000 have been sitting from 31-60 days.

By Feb. 10, the state must eliminate the hardship applications wait list, and finish processing routine applications that have been waiting for more than three months.

The state has blamed some of its NC FAST problems on the federal Affordable Care Act. The state expanded NC FAST to include Medicaid applications several years ahead of schedule to meet requirements of the federal health care law, officials said. That software upgrade resulted in significant slowdowns.

In its letter, the USDA said that other states met the federal health care law requirements without making their residents wait so long for food assistance.

Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner

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