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State says food stamp backlog cleared

By Gary D. Robertson
Associated Press

RALEIGH North Carolina has met a deadline to eliminate a large backlog of delayed food stamp applications that threatened the loss of funds to administer the program, the state’s health secretary said Tuesday. But federal regulators will ultimately make that call.

Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos told legislators that county social services offices, state workers and volunteers worked long hours to process more than 20,000 applications and renewals by this week’s deadline. As of Monday, there were 25 applications remaining, but Wos said county officials were still waiting for information from the applicants or continuing to try to contact them.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture told DHHS in late January that it needed to complete all backlogged benefits applications of more than 90 days by Monday or face the loss of $88 million in federal funding the state receives annually to manage the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“We have successfully achieved our first milestone with the USDA,” Wos told a legislative oversight committee, adding that “DHHS has worked tirelessly and took unprecedented steps to get the job done.”

Wos said more than 290 state workers traveled to regional processing centers or county offices to help with the applications. Counties hired temporary workers, and employees in the General Assembly even volunteered. Some worked nights and weekends.

The USDA had received the state’s report Tuesday and was reviewing it, a spokesman said.

The state isn’t finished with meeting the federal government’s demands. By March 31, the state must eliminate any applications that are now waiting for longer than 30 days, the threshold the federal government uses to evaluate timely processing.

There were more than 1,200 applications waiting longer than 30 days as of Monday, according to DHHS data. That number is subject to change as the state receives 45,000 new food stamp applications per month.

“The goal that we have set for ourselves is to catch up and to stay caught up,” said Sherry Bradsher, deputy secretary for human services. She and Wos said the department was putting together a plan to do that and help county social service offices work more efficiently.

Members of the General Assembly’s oversight committee still wanted assurances the backlog won’t creep up again. They were particularly interested in NC FAST, a computer system used by county offices to enter applications for those receiving government benefits.

An initial backlog began last summer as an NC FAST software update caused computers to freeze or crash. State health officials said in October that that problem – and the backlog – had been addressed.

But the backlog grew again. DHHS said, because of increased responsibilities for county case workers as NC FAST began determining eligibility for Medicaid based on new income thresholds.

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