Raleigh, N.C. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has again criticized the state's health agency for what it says are serious problems with the implementation of North Carolina's new food stamps delivery system.
In the latest response in a months-long back and forth between the federal agency and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, USDA administrators say the state is still at risk of losing federal funding for the food stamps program. If the state doesn't fix the massive backlog of cases, that could happen as soon as mid-March.
The USDA also questioned the state's claim that implementation of the Affordable Care Act was to blame for many of the difficulties.
"It should be noted that many other States have implemented ACA without the dramatic impacts on SNAP that have occurred in North Carolina," USDA Regional Administrator Robin Bailey wrote to DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos Thursday.
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Correspondence between N.C. DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos and the U.S. Department of Agriculture between Sept. 4 and Jan. 23 detail areas that required "urgent attention from the state."
In response to lawmakers at a legislative oversight committee last week, Wos expressed frustrations at what she said were serious challenges posed by the new health law.
"The deadlines have shifted and changed at the last minute because of the implementation of the ACA," Wos said.
As of Jan. 23, DHHS officials estimate more than 20,000 cases have been pending for 30 days or more.
That's an improvement over figures the department produced earlier in the month, which showed that as many as 30,000 cases continued to languish for weeks in the state's new social services delivery system, known as NC FAST.
Much of the reduction over the past month comes from the state's elimination of thousands of duplicate cases stuck in the system. DHHS officials have said some of these food stamps clients may have already received their benefits, although the system prevents people from getting paid more than once.
The department has so far identified and removed 9,500 redundant cases from the NC FAST system.
Data issued by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services shows the wait times for food stamp applications and recertifications in North Carolina.
But those eliminations reduce the backlog to about where it stood Nov. 18, when more than 22,000 cases had been waiting more than 30 days.
It was that mid-November data that prompted the USDA to warn it could soon suspend federal funding for the administration of the state's food stamp program.
But in its latest letter, which DHHS officials released at 4:47 p.m. Friday, the federal agency says the state hasn't demonstrated much progress toward improving "actual service to households" and pointed to department figures that show more than 8,000 households have been waiting for more than three months for benefits.
"FNS is alarmed by the persistent problems despite our extensive technical assistance and repeated communications concerning the severity of the situation," Bailey wrote. "Citizens of North Carolina that need help putting food on the table are not receiving the basic level or responsiveness and quality of service that they deserve from their government."
By Feb. 10, federal officials said they expect to see "significant corrective action" toward reducing the food stamp backlog, which includes completing all backlogged applications that have been pending more than three months.
DHHS officials, who have submitted plans to the USDA to bring the state's food stamps program into compliance by March 31, pointed out in a news release Friday that they've have taken measures to address the problems.
"We strongly disagree with the federal government's threat to withhold Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administrative funds, which could adversely impact counties' abilities to assist families in need. However, we are encouraged by positive conversations between Governor McCrory, Secretary Wos and the U.S. Agriculture Secretary (Tom) Vilsack that resulted in a verbal agreement of our plan to clear up outstanding FNS applications and recertifications," said Sherry Bradsher, DHHS deputy secretary for human services. "We will continue working closely with our partners in county government to solve this problem."