Raleigh, N.C. — Secretary of Health and Human Services Aldona Wos told lawmakers Wednesday that the state was on track to meet an upcoming deadline of clearing its backlog of food stamp applications until learning that Guilford County had a number of cases that hadn't even been entered into the state's computer system.
The food aid program has been mired in deep backlogs since the state launched its new benefits program, NC FAST, last July. The delays, some months long, violated federal rules regarding the timely administration of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits.
After a series of warnings to DHHS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finally threatened on Jan. 23 to withhold $88 million in administrative funding for the state's food stamp program if the problems with NC FAST were not resolved.
The first deadline, Feb. 10, required the resolution of the longest-delayed cases. County agencies managed to meet that deadline, but only by working nights and weekends, hiring temporary staff and diverting staff from other program areas.
For the second deadline, coming up next Monday, the USDA has required DHHS to resolve all backlogged cases and to have corrected the problems causing the backlogs so that all cases are being processed within the federally required time frame.
Wos told the Joint Legislative DHHS Oversight panel that only 520 cases remained in the queue statewide as of Tuesday, and officials were confident that the state could meet the March 31 deadline. Then, Guilford County officials notified DHHS early Wednesday of an additional backlog.
"We rely on the counties to be able to provide accurate information to the state," Wos said.
The extra Guilford County cases aren't a result of NC FAST issues, she said, noting the stack of cases – she didn't know how many – haven't been entered into the system.
A team of DHHS officials have been dispatched to Greensboro to assess the situation, she said.
"Guilford has been one of the counties that has challenges," she said.
A state assessment last summer of the Guilford County social services office found staffing and training problems, as well as an existing backlog in food stamp cases.
Rep. William Brisson, D-Bladen, questioned the effectiveness of the training DHHS has provided to county workers statewide on NC FAST.
"Something's gone wrong somewhere," Brisson said.
Wos responded that the state trains workers to meet each county's specific needs, and other agency officials said the NC FAST help desk is being retooled to assist with problems.
The food stamp caseload in some counties "has doubled, but workforce has not increased proportionally to the need," Wos said, providing another reason for the continued backlog.
NC FAST "has worked very well in the state," she said, adding that progress on clearing the backlog "shows that it works and it works very well."