Raleigh, N.C. — The state Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged Friday afternoon that its problematic food stamps system is not improving, despite assurances to federal officials that it was taking steps to fix the massive backlog of overdue cases.
Data released by DHHS to WRAL News show that, as of Dec. 31, more than 30,000 North Carolina families waited for longer than a month to receive food stamps benefits through the state's new NC FAST system, which was designed to streamline the delivery of public assistance. More than 9,200 of those families waited three months or more.
This outpaces a U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate based on mid-November data that found 20,000 households were experiencing significant food stamps delays. On Dec. 11, the USDA warned it may soon withdraw federal funding from the food stamps program over the state's failure to comply with federal requirements.
"These delays are completely unacceptable and a serious failure on the part of North Carolina," USDA Regional Administrator Donald Arnette wrote. "We have grave concern for the low-income people of North Carolina who are waiting for assistance."
In her response to the USDA on Dec. 23, DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos said her department understood the urgency of the problem and "was already taking steps to address these concerns." Those steps included more on-site support and a "SWAT team" tapped by DHHS to help counties that were running behind.
But on Friday, DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry acknowledged the increased number of overdue cases, thousands of which have been pending for more than four months (Friday afternoon, Henry said the NC FAST team had discovered 2,300 duplicates among cases that had been pending for more than 120 days).
"It's not getting better," Henry said. "We recognize it's not improving. That's why we are continuing to work with our county partners to offer some kind of relief so they can get these cases processed."
Henry's statement runs contrary to comments Wos and her deputies have made about NC FAST in legislative oversight meetings and media interviews in the past few months.
"We are in a very good place right now with that," Wos told WRAL News on Nov. 7. "We have worked collaboratively with our 100 counties in an unprecedented way for the state."
Henry said Wos' statement was referencing the improvements in NC FAST since an update in July that drastically slowed production for county health departments keying in food stamps cases. A WRAL News report in December found DHHS officials downplayed those technical problems to the frustration of county workers, who eventually discovered on their own that a compatibility issue with the Internet Explorer browser was to blame.
Henry also said the department is working hard to meet the federal requirements mandated by the USDA, aiming for key fixes by March.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed a growing frustration with DHHS leadership, which has been dogged for months by questions over political hires, controversial contracts and technology problems.
Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, a member of the legislative committee that oversees information technology, said Thursday that he was surprised by news that the USDA had threatened the department with the suspension of administrative funding.
"I was under the impression that it had stabilized and things were getting on track," Tarte said. "That's just embarrassing at a minimum. This is one we need to jump on."
But Henry said DHHS has made information on the performance of NC FAST "readily available" on a regular basis to lawmakers and the public and that they "can look at the numbers to see how things are going."
"Have we been honest? The answer is yes," Henry said.
Several state Democratic legislators disagree.
On Friday, members of the Legislative Black Caucus called on Gov. Pat McCrory to replace Wos and "stop the bleed on the poorest and the neediest people here in our community."
It was a move McCrory aides dismissed, referencing the department's continuing efforts to improve the food stamp system.
"The governor has confidence that Secretary Wos and her team are working hard to ensure that those who need benefits receive benefits. Another gimmicky press scheme from the extreme left won’t help solve the problem," McCrory spokesman Ryan Tronovitch said in an email to WRAL News. "Gov. McCrory embraces solutions, not gimmicks.”