Raleigh, N.C. — State Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos apologized to lawmakers Tuesday for an incident in which the department mailed Medicaid cards to the wrong families and expressed frustration with a backlog of food stamps cases.
But under questioning from lawmakers, Wos said many of the department's high-profile problems were prompted by federal rules, especially requirements handed down as part of the Affordable Care Act.
"My expectation when it comes to the department is that we get things right 100 percent of the time," she told lawmakers. "When we do our job well, you probably never hear about it."
Lawmakers have been hearing a lot about troubles at the department over the past year, and 2014 started with a pair of troubling disclosures.
On New Year's Eve, state officials learned that nearly 49,000 Medicaid cards were mailed to the wrong families. State officials didn't disclose that incident to the public until three days later.
"It was unacceptable that this issue was not elevated to my office and senior leadership as soon as it was identified," Wos said.
Wos said the department had taken steps to avert any fraud and said no child went untreated as a result of the error.
After the new year, the department disclosed letters from the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture showing thousands of families had waited one to three months for their food stamps benefits.
Although initial estimates have been revised, the latest data available from the department show some 27,000 families may be part of this backlog.
Wos and her top lieutenants told lawmakers that some of that backlog was due to problems with the NC FAST system, a massive computer program meant to process applications for various government services. She said problems related to new eligibility requirements under the Affordable Care Act complicated processing issues.
Lawmakers said they were surprised to the disclosures.
"We were led to believe that, in terms of the NC FAST program, all the kinks had been worked out," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. "So, a December letter from the federal government that suggested families were waiting months for food stamps came as a surprise."
Wos apologized by saying the department had based its prior testimony on information that was current at the time.
Division of Social Services Director Wayne Black said that the backlog may not be as bad as the numbers show.
"As many as half of those numbers we're reporting to the USDA may be of folks who have a duplicate of another application pending," he said.
Black also argued that the federal government counted some applications as "untimely" but that those families may be receiving benefits.
Republicans and Democrats on the committee seemed frustrated with the sometimes conflicting information coming from the department. Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, asked for a timeline detailing the state's dealings with the federal government.
Wos, for her part, kept a cool demeanor, breaking character only once when she again blamed technical problems on the Affordable Care Act.
"The deadlines have shifted and changed at the last minute because of the implementation of the ACA," she said, catching her breath with an audible gasp.
Those shifting deadlines, she said, have been one of the department's biggest problems.
Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, told Wos he understood the department was difficult to manage but that problems have to be fixed.
"In the meantime, our people are getting crushed out here," Nesbitt said of low-income benefit recipients.