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Food stamp backlog in N.C. still? Really?

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor
Jack Betts
Fannie Flono writes on news, politics and life in The Carolinas. Her column appears on the Editorial pages of The Charlotte Observer.

OK, so North Carolina isn’t the only state having trouble getting people who qualify for food stamps the assistance they need in a timely fashion. A Wichita Business Journal story this week said some Kansans who qualified for food stamps and who used to get access immediately – often in one day – have been waiting up to five.

Ummm. Five whole days.

Recipients in the Tar Heel State can only look on with envy. Until last month, as state officials scurried to meet a federal deadline or lose millions in funding, North Carolina had thousands waiting weeks to months for food stamps. Last December that number had swelled to more than 30,000 households without the emergency food assistance they qualified for – some had waited half a year or more.

The threat of a cut-off of $88 million in federal administrative funding lit a fire under the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. By the Feb. 10 deadline, DHHS said it had wiped out its backlog of those waiting 90 days or more for assistance and that the agency would meet a second March 31 deadline by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to clear the entire backlog and fix other problems. DHHS secretary Aldona Wos and other officials were all but high-fiving themselves over “Herculean efforts” to marshal the resources – lots of overtime and temporary workers were involved – to get the job done.

That was then. This week, Wos told an N.C. legislative oversight committee the food stamp backlog was back to 2,000, and said it will be “extremely difficult” to erase that backlog by the March deadline, though the “stakes are very high.” Those stakes are the federal dollars USDA regional administrator Robin Bailey Jr. said, in a sternly worded letter of reprimand in January, could be lost if the problems were not fixed.

At that time, Wos blamed the food stamp woes on problems with a new benefits delivery system, NC FAST (Families Accessing Services through Technology), rising numbers seeking food stamps because of the recession and requirements of the Affordable Care Act. On that last one, Bailey pointed out that many other states implemented ACA without the “dramatic impacts on SNAP (the food stamp program) that have occurred in North Carolina.”

Wos didn’t focus on ACA with lawmakers this week, but she did note the continuing issues with NC FAST. And she said this: “What we are learning through this process is both the state and the counties must ensure they have appropriate staffing levels with the appropriate skill set.”

What? Is this an implicit acknowledgment that maybe lawmakers’ spending and tax cuts have led to staff reductions that are now hurting the ability of agencies to do their jobs sufficiently?

NC FAST is also causing headaches for DHHS as it tries to meet another federal deadline – this one on Medicaid. Under the Affordable Care Act, all states were required to recertify all Medicaid recipients and applicants under new income guidelines as of Jan. 1. North Carolina already received one three-month extension, making the state’s new deadline April 1.

To comply using problem-plagued NC FAST would be another major headache, significantly increasing the staff’s workload and possibly, sigh, holding up Medicaid benefits for qualified recipients.

So the state wants a waiver to use the old Medicaid system.

This situation would be comical if it didn’t adversely affect so many North Carolinians who can least afford the trouble. Some of the food stamp recipients waiting for benefits had to seek the help of food banks to make it. And when that wasn’t available, some parents reportedly sometimes went hungry so their children could get fed. Other recipients – working to pay for housing and other needs – limited meals each day to stretch their meager budgets.

This is not something North Carolinians should be proud of. While other states are admirably figuring out ways to mitigate the impact of congressional cuts to food stamps that begin this month, the Tar Heel state still can’t erase a backlog of old claims. A notable standout in making sure the most vulnerable in his state continue to receive food stamps is Republican Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania. Caring about the welfare of all citizens is not a partisan issue.

But North Carolina now has company in the delinquent category. Last week the USDA sent a stern letter to Georgia, warning that if officials didn’t fix problems with their food stamp program within two months, it could suspend its $75 million in federal funding. In February, more than 30,000 families were experiencing significant delays in receiving benefits. Officials blamed it on, surprise, problems with a new technology system and staffing shortages.

Georgia lawmakers were incensed, with one saying of state welfare department leaders: “Either they don’t have the will to fix it or ... they’re incompetent.”

In North Carolina, we understand the sentiment.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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