After 'herculean effort,' most late food stamp cases cleared

North Carolina has met a federal deadline to clear a massive backlog of food stamp applications, state Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos told lawmakers Tuesday.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina has met a federal deadline to clear a massive backlog of food stamp applications, state Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos told lawmakers Tuesday.

In late January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said failure to eliminate longstanding and emergency cases by Monday could prompt the agency to pull $88 million in federal administrative funding for the state's food stamp program.

At a legislative oversight meeting Tuesday morning, Wos credited a "herculean effort" by state and county social services workers, many of whom worked overtime and on weekends in the past few weeks to clear the backlog. She said only 25 cases covered by the USDA mandate remain unresolved, and those cases require additional information from clients.

Wos reported the new numbers in a Feb. 10 letter to the USDA.

"First and foremost, we credit the hard work of our local county social services agencies, dedicated staff, county agency directors, board members, county managers, and county commissioners for their commitment and support," Wos wrote. "County agencies have authorized overtime, hired temporary staff, worked weekends and made home visits to help meet this very aggressive deadline."

Wos noted that this was only the state's first milestone. The remainder of the backlog, which includes applications and recertifications that have been waiting 30 to 90 days, must be cleared by March 31.

According to data released Tuesday by the department, that remaining backlog now stands at 1,254 cases.

"This is the first hurdle," Wos told legislators. "Our work on this issue continues, and until the state and the counties are in full compliance with all federal standards for processing nutritional cases, I can assure you that DHHS will continue to work as aggressively as we have with our partners to provide support needed to share best practices and build a sustainable work process as we continue to move forward."

While he was glad DHHS cleared the majority of the backlog, Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said he still wondered why it took so long.

"The thing that disappoints me is that it took us seven months to address the backlog, and we had thousands of people that were harmed in the process," McKissick said. "I hate that it was a threat of federal funding cuts that got us on top of it in such a significant way."

McKissick also asked how much the efforts would ultimately cost the state.

Although Wos said DHHS doesn't have an estimate on that yet, she said she's sure it would be significantly less than it would cost to lose federal funding.

"Our priority was to get the job done," she said.

Several committee members also questioned Wos about the functionality of the state's new NC FAST system, meant to streamline the delivery of social services, such as food stamps and Medicaid. Significant technical problems with the system in July contributed to a backlog that topped 70,000 cases, according to USDA estimates.

Although DHHS officials acknowledged there will always be some issues with major systems like NC FAST, the "key defects" impacting county workers in food and nutrition services had all been fixed.

"The performance of this system has been stellar for FNS in catching up their work," Deputy Secretary for Human Services Sherry Bradsher said. "There have been no performance issues and the defects described by the USDA have been corrected."

In the coming weeks, Wos and her staff told lawmakers that DHHS is focused on maintaining its progress toward clearing the backlog of food stamp cases – which number about 45,000 monthly.

"We have not stopped to rest yet," Wos told legislators. "We are still on the labor-intensive schedule until we get through the next hurdle."

Reducing the backlog

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