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Mistakes in NC food stamp approvals jump in 2014

While state workers rushed to reduce a crushing backlog of food stamp applications this year, they handed out about $440,000 in excess benefits to hundreds of households.

The cost of the mistakes was substantially higher in 2014 than in 2012 and 2013, years that saw an average of $107,000 in excess benefits.

The mistakes came to light as a result of a U.S. Department of Agriculture review of the state food stamp program that found dozens of deficiencies in state management.

In a September letter to the USDA, the state reported about 2,100 cases of excess benefits over three years totaling $655,078. It said it recouped about $348,000.

DHHS Deputy Secretary Sherry Bradsher said that temporary staff working in counties and the urgency with which workers attacked the piles of lingering applications led to more mistakes than usual.

About 1.6 million people in North Carolina use food stamps. Bradsher said that is about 800,000 cases.

The USDA threatened the state with financial sanctions late last year when it found tens of thousands of food stamp applications were being processed too slowly and people were waiting months for assistance. Clearing the backlog took months.

County workers search databases to try to make sure people who are already receiving benefits don’t get approved twice, but matching names is not always straightforward, Bradsher said.

With a lot of work to do in a short time, “the attention to conducting the searches probably wasn’t done with the due diligence that we would like to see done,” she said.

Some of the excess benefits amounted to as little as $11 per household, but some households received $8,000 to $12,000 in excess food assistance.

Angela Taylor, who is in charge of NC FAST, the state’s public benefits IT system, said some of those larger amounts may have gone to big households getting several months of duplicate benefits.

NC FAST allows caseworkers to search by name, by sound-alike names, and by Social Security number, Taylor said. Some changes make it easier for caseworkers to do all the searches, she said. NC FAST also produces daily reports that flag potential duplicates, she said.

In replying to the USDA, DHHS Social Services Director Wayne Black said the state was planning more upgrades to NC FAST to reduce chances for more such mistakes.

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