Raleigh, N.C. — State and county health officials say they are on track to meet a federal deadline to clear out a longstanding backlog of food stamp cases that put millions of dollars of funding at risk.
Data released Friday by the state Department of Health and Human Services show the state needs to resolve 559 more cases to meet its Feb. 10 mandate. That's down about 96 percent from Jan. 23, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture told the state it could lose $88 million in administrative funding for the food stamp program if it didn't make significant progress toward clearing delayed cases.
"I am extremely proud of the work performed by our state and county workers to meet the federal deadlines," DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos said in a press release Friday. "Our top priority continues to be getting these important benefits to eligible North Carolina families in a timely manner."
Yet, the department's efforts to tackle the delays, which have left thousands of North Carolina families waiting months for nutrition benefits, didn't have much impact until months after the USDA noted concerns in September. In fact, the department's data showed that, weeks after the federal agency issued its initial threat to withdraw funding on Dec. 11, the number of cases rose to 35,500 cases.
The growth in cases prompted the department to acknowledge things were getting worse.
"It's not getting better," DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry said at the time. "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."
After identifying and clearing thousands of duplicate cases stuck in its new NC FAST enrollment and management system in early January, the state reduced the number of cases by about 10,000. That returned the backlog to about the same level that caused the USDA so much concern when it examined the state's data on Nov. 18.
But days after the federal ultimatum at the end of January, DHHS began setting up 11 "processing centers" across the state to help county workers process cases.
Since that time, workers have reduced the USDA-required portion of the backlog by focusing exclusively on food stamp cases and working overtime.
"Counties become more efficient; case workers are more proficient," Division of Social Services Director Wayne Black said. "We've used our state staff to work with them in training, and for the last month, I think, we've made tremendous progress."
Asked by WRAL News why it took the department so long to get the backlog under control, Black said they had setbacks from an NC FAST software glitch in July and the addition of a Medicaid component in October, which created more work for case managers.
"I sort of expected this – 'You got it fixed. Why didn't you fix it sooner?'" Black said. "The only thing I could say to that (is), again, we were working hard to fix that all along, since July."
In Wake County, which has carried the largest share of the backlog, the total number of remaining cases as of Friday morning stood at more than 150. County officials say that, by the end of the day, there will be fewer than 60 cases to process before Monday's deadline.
But those final 60 are likely to be the most complicated, according to Wake County spokeswoman Sarah Williamson-Baker. Some have been delayed by technical problems with the NC FAST system, while others can't be processed without additional information from clients.
"We have had staff out making home visits and calling clients to obtain needed information, and we have worked with the state staff on any cases that still needed some resolution in the system," Wake County Assistant Human Services Director Liz Scott said in an email Friday. "It has been a nonstop effort to get this completed."