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@NCCapitol

USDA threatens to pull funding over NC food stamps problems

Posted January 9

— The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has failed to make promised changes to fix problems with its food stamps program, according to federal regulators.

The state and federal government share the administrative costs associated with the program, but officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture say they will withdraw federal funding if the problems aren't corrected soon. 

In a letter dated Dec. 11, USDA Regional Administrator Donald Arnette says the state has failed to answer questions from federal officials and has not followed through on steps laid out by the USDA, which oversees the program.

"The data provided by DHHS indicates that more than 20,000 households continue to experience significant delays with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applications and re-certifications," Arnette wrote, adding that 6,000 of those households waited more than three months to receive benefits.

"These delays are completely unacceptable and a serious failure on the part of North Carolina," Arnette wrote.

The letter was part of a series of documents released Thursday by DHHS and the USDA. It contradicts testimony DHHS officials gave to state lawmakers in October and November that indicated the food stamps enrollment system, known as NC FAST, had initially experienced problems this summer but was working mostly as it should by the fall.

"DHHS has already taken steps to ensure that applications and re-certifications are processed in a timely fashion and submitted a corrective action plan to address the concerns raised by the USDA," DHHS Deputy Secretary Sherry Bradsher said in a statement released with the state's documents. "DHHS continues to work closely with county social services agencies and are monitoring our progress weekly. Our work will continue until all clients are receiving benefits in a timely manner."

In a statement late Thursday, a USDA spokesperson said the SNAP benefits were one of the country's strongest defenses against hunger and critical for low-income families.

"USDA expects North Carolina to take whatever steps are necessary to fix these system issues as quickly as possible and deliver benefits to eligible clients in a timely fashion," the statement said.

Lawmakers said they were surprised by the news Thursday afternoon, saying that they had been told NC FAST was no longer a problem.

"I was under the impression that it had stabilized and things were getting on track," said Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, a member of the legislative committee that oversees information technology. "That's just embarrassing at a minimum. This is one we need to jump on."

Letters show persistent problems

Correspondence between DHHS and the USDA about problems with NC FAST began on Sept. 4, when the federal agency noted several areas that require urgent attention from the State."

Read the documents

Correspondence between N.C. DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos and U.S. Department of Agriculture Regional Administrator Donald Arnette between Sept. 4 and Dec. 23 detail areas that required "urgent attention from the state."

Among these urgent problems was the department's inability to quantify its backlog of food stamps cases that left North Carolina families without assistance for months. The USDA estimated that almost 70,000 food stamps cases were overdue across the state and demanded that DHHS leaders confirm the exact number and how long they were overdue.

In her response on Sept. 20, DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos failed to do that, instead writing that "some counties" struggled to complete applications in a "timely manner." She also noted that a DHHS "SWAT team," deployed to tackle the backlog, had by then completed more than 1,500 cases, with more to come.

"The SWAT team has been an important strategy to help counties, but the weekly reports for the work of the SWAT team does not provide the information we originally requested," the USDA wrote back on Nov. 6.

The federal agency also took issue with the DHHS response to questions about technical glitches in July and August that put caseworkers in county human services agencies way behind. A WRAL News report in December showed DHHS downplayed those technical problems to the frustration of county workers, who eventually discovered on their own that a compatibility issue with Internet Explorer browser was to blame.

DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos and Chief Information Officer Joe Cooper Records: DHHS downplayed food stamp issues

After another response from Wos on Nov. 20 still failed to satisfy the federal agencies, the warnings grew more dire.

"We have grave concern for the low income people of North Carolina who are waiting for assistance," Arnette wrote in his Dec. 11 letter. "DHHS must work aggressively to correct the issues that are impacting the ability of North Carolina citizens to purchase food."

Those comments came weeks after Wos told WRAL News that NC FAST was "in a very good place right now" and that inadequate preparation – not technical issues – caused most of the problems.

"Whatever issues came up, we just figured out a creative way of resolving them," Wos said.

A few weeks later, Wos responded with a corrective action plan, noting that the department had already been working on fixes before receiving the federal agency's last letter.

"We want to assure you that we will continue to implement corrective actions to resolve the concerns raised in your most recent letter," Wos wrote.

Lawmakers call for secretary's ouster

The continued problems with NC FAST, coming on the heels of DHHS' admission that it mailed identification cards containing the personal information of about 49,000 Medicaid recipients to the wrong people, intensified calls for Wos to step down.

"It's just one mistake after another, and they just start piling on here," said state Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham. "It doesn't give me a lot of confidence in their ability to continue running these critical human service programs."

Woodard said he also worries about the cost of those mistakes. In 2012, the federal government fined Alaska $1.7 million for violating patient privacy.

"I think it's time for the governor and the secretary to step up and say, 'This is our mistake. This is what we're doing to fix it,'" he said. "Frankly I think they need to look at the kind of staffing they have there, and they need to make some changes there."

Reps. Beverly Earle, D-Mecklenburg, and Michael Wray, D-Northampton, who both sit on the Legislative Oversight Committee for Health and Human Services, said Wos has shown "inept leadership" and is hindering DHHS operations.

"Secretary Wos has created more problems than she has solved," Earle and Wray said in a joint statement. "The department needs a competent leader who can direct public policy and work with the legislative leadership to address the critical needs facing those who are served by the Department of Health and Human Services."

Tarte, an IT expert, said he still has confidence in Wos and other DHHS leaders, but he agreed that something has to change.

"This nonsense has got to stop. It's really out of control," he said. "It's death by 1,000 cuts. It's time ... to take accountability, get procedures and processes in place that prevent a lot of this activity from occurring going forward."

181 Comments

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  • JustOneGodLessThanU Jan 14, 2:50 p.m.

    It amazes me - the cold-heartedness and outright contempt many posters here have demonstrated... View More

    — Posted by clc72

    The Republicans don't care. At all. Get it?

    Meanwhile, they will tell you that they are the "family values" party who will "do unto others as you would have done unto you." Seriously. Ask them.

  • BBQCreek Jan 13, 4:26 p.m.

    That's telling them USDA -- help these people quicker or USDA won't help these people at all.

  • JustOneGodLessThanU Jan 13, 1:47 p.m.

    Isn't this what the Republicans want?

    When have they started caring about the poor, downtrodden and huddled masses?...other than when they *say* that they value The Golden Rule?

  • zenithcadet1 Jan 12, 9:29 a.m.

    I agree with a lot of these points poster have said but I need to bring to attention one fact:
    -You cannot buy alcohol (other than Cooking Sherry) or cigarettes with the EBT card.

  • musthavecoffee Jan 11, 10:04 a.m.

    So your basic point seems to be that if a person qualifies for food stamps and uses those food... View More

    — Posted by AlternateOpinion

    Pretty much what I gathered from those quotes.

    How dare they try to bring some enjoyment into... View More

    — Posted by GravyPig

    I guess your view is that alcohol is required for happiness? I have known many people who were... View More

    — Posted by MrX--

    For some, alcohol makes them happy. I was speaking in general terms. With extra money left over... View More

    — Posted by Ijaz Fahted

    If I cannot afford the luxury item I want, then u do not buy it.

  • musthavecoffee Jan 11, 10:00 a.m.

    What makes me angry about the NC fast system is the problem is Internet explorer. Obviously... View More

    — Posted by jackal10782

    Perhaps those former IBMers should hook up with a recruiter. My husband works as a software engineer and gets called about job opportunities at least 5 times a week.

  • AM5 Jan 11, 9:47 a.m.

    Too much abuse with food stamps...too many slackers collecting them who also buy tobacco and... View More

    — Posted by bizarro

    One literally cannot purchase alcohol or tobacco with an EBT card.

    — Posted by cadillacstew

    No, but the vendors that accept the food stamps for them exist, so this is a very prelevant tactic in the real world. If you believe it isn't happening, you might want to crawl out from under your rock and meet some of the individuals who do abuse a program that many individuals do need. However on another note, some people aren't getting their benefits quick enough so the USDA wants to pull the funding for all. Now there is a true solution to the problem. Do people think things through at all anymore?

  • sandlfarm Jan 11, 9:39 a.m.

    USDA hasn't stopped paying yet, but I curious as to where all the money NC received for services NOT rendered is. McCrory, Wos, and DHHS need to provide accountability for tax payer funds received but not properly used.

  • Atheistinafoxhole Jan 11, 9:35 a.m.

    republicans NEVER admit to doing anything wrong. it is ALWAYS some one else's fault.

    — Posted by funnything

    And the other parties are any different??

    — Posted by busyb97

    The problem is that when they were campaigning for office they didn't say, "we'll be the same as the others", did they? Would McCrory and his cohorts have been elected if they admitted that they would be as bad or worse than the Democrats? They just played all those that voted for them for fools.

  • musthavecoffee Jan 11, 6:49 a.m.

    So, the USDA answer to this is to pull the funding, so NO ONE gets Food Stamps?

    — Posted by computer trainer

    No, state taxes will simply skyrocket. Then, the middle class will receive so little of their paycheck that they too will need food stamps.

    I say, privatize the whole thing and be done with it.

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