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‘A serious failure on the part of N.C.’

On Oct. 8, Aldona Wos went before legislators and told them not to worry, her Department of Health and Human Services was making excellent progress fixing problems with the state’s food stamp program.

Apparently not.

Newly released letters between Wos and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, show that two months after Wos was painting a rosy picture, the USDA still had serious concerns and tens of thousands of North Carolinians were not being served as they should.

More than 20,000 households were enduring significant delays receiving their food stamps, known as SNAP benefits, and more than 6,000 had waited for more than three months.

“These delays are completely unacceptable and a serious failure on the part of North Carolina,” USDA Regional Administrator Donald Arnette wrote on Dec. 11. “We have grave concerns for the low income people of North Carolina who are waiting for assistance.”

If the state fails to fix the problems, Arnette warned, the feds could cut off administrative funding.

Wos responded through her chief of staff on Dec. 23, assuring Arnette that she was all over it. The hungry people of North Carolina certainly hope so, but Wos’ department has been offering such reassurances for many months.

The food stamp delays go back to at least last summer. The USDA paid a site visit in August and in a Sept. 4 letter, told DHHS it had “identified several areas that require urgent attention” and “any delays in addressing these could create significant hardship for families and individuals in North Carolina.” It noted that 68,000 applications and recertifications were backlogged.

It wrote again Nov. 6, saying its concerns had not been addressed adequately, then again last month.

Who suffers? The neediest people in the state. The average household receiving SNAP benefits has a gross income of $744 per month, or $8,928 a year, and most of those households have dependents. The average N.C. household receiving food stamps received $121.85 per month in 2013.

Try spending that much on food for your family per month – then imagine the check showing up two weeks, or four weeks, or 12 weeks late.

A USDA spokesperson told the Observer editorial board Friday that the agency is still reviewing Wos’ Dec. 23 response. The department issued a statement late Thursday saying, “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.”

Wos and Gov. Pat McCrory acknowledge the food stamp backlog is a serious problem; Wos said in September that “even one person not getting the appropriate food is really a human crisis.”

But her track record makes that appear to be mostly lip service. Under Wos, DHHS rolled out a computer program that delayed Medicaid payments to providers and this month violated the privacy of nearly 49,000 Medicaid recipients by sending their information to the wrong addresses.

It is, as Sen. Jeff Tarte told WRAL, “nonsense” and “death by 1,000 cuts.”

How much longer will Gov. McCrory let it go on?

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