By Rose Hoban
Federal officials are one step closer to withdrawing funding for North Carolina’s problem-plagued Food Stamp program in the latest round of the months-long exchange between the state’s Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the Food Stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
In a letter sent Thursday by Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) regional administrator Robin Bailey, FNS officials are giving the state until Feb. 10 to reach “significant outputs toward total resolution of the backlog” of more than 23,000 households waiting for food stamps or lose federal administrative funds for the program.
The delays have been a result of problems in the rollout of the NC FAST computer system, which was intended to expedite low-income families’ registration for state and federal benefits.
But since the summer, there have been significant delays in food stamp applications for thousands of North Carolina families because of glitches in the system and late updates to make the system compatible with Medicaid applications and Affordable Care Act requirements.
In statements to legislators, DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos has attributed some of the delay in processing applications to late changes handed down by the federal government during the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
“It should be noted that many other States have implemented ACA without the dramatic impacts on [the food stamp program] that have occurred in North Carolina,” Bailey noted in her letter.
As of Jan. 23, there were 19,974 pending applications for food stamps in the state. Of those, 11,011 applications had been waiting 30 days and 4,292 applications had been in process for more than four months, according to documents released by DHHS on Friday.
DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry said the numbers are not entirely reflective of the reality on the ground.
She explained that as the system rolled out late last summer and into the fall, county caseworkers had trouble completing applications and, in some cases, created duplicate applications in order to get food stamp recipients their benefits.
Henry said that in the past month, NC FAST workers have found thousands of such duplicate applications and purged them from the system.
“We have already culled almost 10,000 cases form the system that were duplicates, and we believe there are many more, especially the more long-standing applications,” she said. “Conversely, there may be cases in counties that haven’t been entered yet, applications that are still sitting on caseworkers’ desks.”
In a press release issued by DHHS late Friday afternoon, Sherry Bradsher, deputy secretary for human services, expressed disappointment at “the federal government’s threat to withhold Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administrative funds, which could adversely impact counties’ abilities to assist families in need.”
Those funds get passed on to counties to help them pay for administering the program.
Henry said DHHS leaders met with county social service directors Friday afternoon to brainstorm on how to meet the more aggressive timeline.
“We do have a plan. We were already working on a plan of correction, and these are more aggressive dates presented in this letter,” Henry said. “So it will require a more concerted effort on the part of the state and counties.”
In a letter sent to county directors of social services on Friday by Wayne Black, head of the DHHS Division of Social Services urged an “all hands on deck” call, “as we would do in the case of an emergency, including working overtime, assigning staff from other areas to assist with this very important work.”
“[The Food and Nutrition Service] is alarmed by the persistent problems despite our extensive technical assistance and repeated communications concerning the severity of the situation,” the letter read.