Raleigh, N.C. — Secretary of Health and Human Services Aldona Wos told lawmakers Wednesday that the state will have a difficult time meeting a key food stamp deadline March 31.
The number of backlogged cases has rebounded to 1,975 around the state.
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 March 31, 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.
"Meeting the March 31 deadline coming up will be extremely difficult, and the stakes are very high," Wos told the Joint Legislative DHHS Oversight panel.
"All of us have our work cut out for us over the next 19 days," she said. "The counties and the state must again work tirelessly."
In the past, the state has blamed county staff for most of the backlog, while counties have insisted the problem lay with the NC FAST system itself.
"What we are learning through this process is both the state and the counties must ensure they have appropriate staffing levels with the appropriate skill set," Wos said.
DHHS will resume sending out daily updates on progress on the backlog, she said, adding that she would update lawmakers next week.
NC FAST director Anthony Vellucci left DHHS on March 7 for a private-sector health care IT job in Maryland.
Later Wednesday, DHHS IT Chief Joe Cooper told lawmakers that NC FAST Is "functioning fine."
"We have defects, and as we have defects we address them," he said.
When skeptical lawmakers quizzed him on the continuing backlog, Cooper said there are several contributing factors.
"It’s the amount of work that’s being done, it’s the 100 counties, and it’s the individual system," Cooper said. "We had backlogs before NC FAST ever came along. We have a system now which can better track the backlog."
Meantime, NC FAST was down for an hour this afternoon due to "latency issues," according to an email from DHHS.