Politics & Government

NC receives another food stamp warning

The state must get faster at approving food stamp applications or risk losing money that supports the program, a federal agency warned this week.

The state takes too long to process food stamp applications and is consistently below an acceptable rate, said a letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture dated Thursday.

The state Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the food stamp program, believes the state is doing better than the federal numbers show, said agency spokeswoman Kendra Gerlach.

“Their numbers differ from ours,” Gerlach said. “That’s why we're perplexed by this.”

DHHS will get information from the counties, which process applications, and contact the USDA to try to clear up the discrepancies, she said.

The state has a history of problems with the USDA and food stamp application delays.

Requests for food stamps preoccupied the DHHS and county social services offices last year as they worked frantically to reduce a backlog of more than 30,000 applications in the face of the federal government’s threat to pull administrative money that amounts to about $88 million a year. Much of that money goes to the counties.

The abrupt resignation of the Guilford County social services director last year was connected to a massive application backlog that had gone undetected.

The state was one of the worst in the nation in timely application approvals in 2013, according to Thursday’s letter, and had not reached an acceptable level in 2014.

The agency asked DHHS for a response within 30 days on how it will improve.

“The state’s chronically poor performance in timeliness is in direct conflict with application processing statutory and regulatory provisions meant to protect a low-income household’s right to receive nutrition assistance benefits in a timely manner,” said the letter from USDA regional administrator Robin D. Bailey Jr.

Counties have 30 days to decide whether applicants qualify for food stamps and have seven days to decide on applications for emergency food stamps.

The USDA wants the state to show how it will get to an 85 percent statewide average rate of on-time processing for July-December 2015 and to a 95 percent average statewide rate for January-June 2016. The USDA letter say the state’s best processing rate from July-December was 84.6 percent.

It would take several rounds of warning letters and DHHS responses before the federal government suspends money.

Last year’s application backlog was attributed, in part, to new public benefits software called NC FAST. The counties were using the new software for food stamp applications and to handle Medicaid applications at a time when those were surging. About 10,000 food stamp applications submitted via the tax filing software Turbo Tax added to the mix and slowed processing, DHHS said, as did 141,000 low-income heating assistance applications approved last winter.

Bailey’s letter recognized that NC FAST represents “a major transition,” but said “benefits for eligible low-income North Carolina residents should not be contingent upon program modernization.”

In a statement it released with the letter, DHHS said county processing rates improved in the first three months of this year, and the state has a goal of achieving a 95 percent rate by January 2016.

Bonner: 919-829-4821;

Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner