A new federal report on North Carolina's food stamp program describes significant problems ranging from applications that fail to notify potential recipients of their rights to workers ignoring suspected fraud.
A review of state and local management of the food stamp program found 38 deficiencies, many of which "are significant and show lack of oversight and internal controls," the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food stamps regional director said in a letter to the state. The state had more than 1.6 million people using food stamps in June.
A top official at the state Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the food stamp program, said most of the problems the report cites have been addressed.
The federal review came on the heels of an intense few months when the state and counties were focused on reducing a tremendous backlog of food stamp applications.
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Last year, unattended piles of food stamp applications put North Carolina in danger of losing millions in federal dollars to administer the program. State and federal workers struggled through the early months of this year to reduce the backlog. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of food stamps, declared in April that the state sufficiently cleared it.
Then came the review of program management that stretched from spring into summer and included interviews and on-site observations at the state Division of Social Services office, and in Guilford, Pitt, and Wake counties.
Other duties were pushed to the side while everyone was working on applications, said Sherry Bradsher, DHHS deputy secretary for human services. But nearly all the problems pointed out in the report have been addressed, she said.
"We made some choices - they were tough choices," she said. "We did the right thing in terms of getting benefits out the door."
The federal report deals mostly with procedural issues, reports, and filling out forms, she said.
"None of them directly impact on a client getting their benefits," she said.
"We've made such great progress in the SNAP program," Bradsher said. The official name for the food stamp program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. "This is a review where you're looking backward."
The state Department of Health and Human Services has faced technical, managerial and financial challenges in the past two years.
Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, who has been critical of DHHS performance and management decisions, was disheartened by the news of another critical report.
"It's deeply disturbing that we have a report that identifies a broad range of discrepancies," McKissick said. "We need to do something as expeditiously as possible."
The state has 60 days to come up with a plan to correct the problems, said Johnathan Monroe, the Atlanta-based regional communications director for the federal Agriculture Department.
Counties on the front line
States have different ways of running food stamp programs. In North Carolina, counties are the front line of food stamp operations, signing up recipients and referring adults to employment programs, if necessary. The state has oversight over county operations.
The federal review describes problems with the state food stamp program from the point where people first apply, through the certification process, to the endpoint where benefit are used.
"SNAP is one of our country's strongest defenses against hunger and poverty and a critical support for eligible low-income families in North Carolina so we take the proper administration of this important program seriously," Monroe said in a statement. "It is incumbent upon the state to resolve these problems in a responsible manner that is consistent with federal statute and regulations. USDA will continue to work in partnership with the state by providing technical assistance and support on how to best address the issues outlined in the report."
A quick response
Bradsher said the department wants to move quickly to address most of the report's claims because it does not want to leave a lingering impression of deep problems in the food stamp program.
The report says lack of state oversight is allowing people who may be committing fraud to continue getting the benefit and retailers suspected of trafficking to stay in the program.
In some cases people were able to sign up more than once in a month.
Bradsher said cases of intentional fraud are referred for prosecution, and the report did not fully explain other events. There were instances in Wake County where duplicate applications were created, but the claims processing system NC FAST caught them before benefits were delivered, she said.
The paper and online applications are loaded with problems, according to the report. They don't include the description of penalties for criminal or civil violations, for example. The electronic version requires applicants to provide an email address, an additional requirement that federal regulations don't allow.
The paper forms don't indicate that providing racial and ethnic information is voluntary, or that information collected may be given to other state and federal agencies and to law enforcement officials.
Bradsher didn't know why the paper applications were not complete, but said the online applications include questions required for both food stamps and Medicaid.
The state may "push back" on the email address requirement for online applicants, she said. The state system uses email addresses as identifiers, and the ability for applicants to file online makes it easier for people lacking transportation or time to make it to a county office, Bradsher said.
"We want it to stay in place," she said. "We think they're being a little stringent."