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NC threatened with federal sanctions for food stamp delays

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has threatened to sanction the state for failing to show it was addressing widespread problems with food stamp applications.

The Dec. 11 warning letter came about two months after state Health and Human Services officials assured legislators that the department responded swiftly to problems with the computer software program called NC FAST. The software problems forced thousands of people to wait months for food assistance.

“The data provided by DHHS indicates that more than 20,000 households continue to experience significant delays with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applications and recertifications,” the USDA letter said. “Of these households, over 6,000 have been waiting for more than three months to receive benefits. These delays are completely unacceptable and a serious failure on the part of North Carolina ... We have grave concerns for the low income people of North Carolina who are waiting for assistance.”

Food stamp recipients must periodically reapply, or be “recertified,” for the benefit.

The letter says the federal government may suspend administrative payments to the state if it doesn’t show it has plans to fix the problems.

In a statement, DHHS deputy secretary Sherry Bradsher said the agency has told the USDA how it will correct problems, and is working to make sure applications and recertifications “are processed in a timely fashion.”

“Our work will continue until all clients are receiving benefits in a timely manner,” the statement said.

Wos under fire

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who uncovered the USDA letter, said DHHS withheld information and misled them. They joined the growing chorus of Democrats calling for the resignation of Dr. Aldona Wos, DHHS secretary.

“The letter is evidence they weren’t telling the truth,” Sen. Earline Parmon, a Winston-Salem Democrat, said. She is a member of a legislative oversight committee that spent more than eight hours in October meetings questioning DHHS officials about problem areas such as NC FAST.

“We asked for accurate information,” Parmon said. “None of this has ever been shared with us.”

Bradsher said in a statement that the counties knew what was going on. “DHHS has been transparent on this issue with our strategic partners at the county level where these programs are administered,” she said.

It was unclear Thursday evening how much money is at stake or if suspending administrative payments means that the federal government would oversee the program. DHHS said it did not know, and the USDA issued a statement that didn’t address the issue.

“USDA expects North Carolina to take whatever steps are necessary to fix these system issues as quickly as possible and deliver benefits to eligible clients in a timely fashion,” the statement said.

DHHS said it received $88.2 million last year for the entire program. About 1.5 million people in North Carolina receive benefits from the program.

“We cannot speculate on potential actions of the federal government,” DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry said in an email. “Our focus now is to work with our county partners to meet federal requirements.”

Latest trouble at DHHS

In the last year, the beleaguered health agency oversaw the expansion of NC FAST and the launch of a troubled software program that pays Medicaid claims called NC Tracks. Last week, another DHHS computer error resulted in violations of federal health privacy rules when nearly 50,000 children’s Medicaid cards that included their names, dates of birth, and Medicaid numbers were mailed to incorrect addresses.

Gov. Pat McCrory has supported Wos through the waves of trouble, and did so again on Monday after the federal privacy violations were revealed.

His office did not respond to a question Thursday about whether McCrory new of the threatened federal sanctions over food stamp oversight.

NC Tracks continues to be a focus of legislative attention, but lawmakers seemed reassured that problems with food stamps were being resolved when DHHS officials described special teams that were working with county officials to erase their application backlogs.

On Thursday, DHHS released data on application processing times, complaint logs, and letters between the state and the USDA dating back to September. That’s when a federal administrator wrote of NC FAST defects, problems counties had using the system, and “sporadic and inconsistent communications” from the state to the counties. During the week of Aug. 26, 38,000 recertifications and 30,000 applications were overdue, the Sept. 4 USDA letter said.

DHHS responded to the December warning with a letter dated Dec. 23 from Wos’ chief of staff, Mark Payne, that described corrective steps and listed documents the state provided federal staff after a Dec. 13 conference call.

“This program is extremely important to the citizens of North Carolina,” the letter said. “The corrective actions outlined in this letter are being monitored weekly at the highest level in order to assure that we stay on track for successful implementation.”

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