Despite USDA threat, NC food stamps backlog got worse
Despite assurances from the state Department of Health and Human Services to federal officials last month that it was taking steps to fix its massive backlog of food stamps cases, data released by the agency Friday show the problem got much worse.Posted — Updated
Data released by DHHS to WRAL News show that, as of Dec. 31, more than 30,000 North Carolina families waited for longer than a month to receive food stamps benefits through the state's new NC FAST system, which was designed to streamline the delivery of public assistance. More than 9,200 of those families waited three months or more.
This outpaces a U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate based on mid-November data that found 20,000 households were experiencing significant food stamps delays. On Dec. 11, the USDA warned it may soon withdraw federal funding from the food stamps program over the state's failure to comply with federal requirements.
"These delays are completely unacceptable and a serious failure on the part of North Carolina," USDA Regional Administrator Donald Arnette wrote. "We have grave concern for the low-income people of North Carolina who are waiting for assistance."
In her response to the USDA on Dec. 23, DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos said her department understood the urgency of the problem and "was already taking steps to address these concerns." Those steps included more on-site support and a "SWAT team" tapped by DHHS to help counties that were running behind.
"It's not getting better," Henry said. "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."
Henry's statement runs contrary to comments Wos and her deputies have made about NC FAST in legislative oversight meetings and media interviews in the past few months.
Henry also said the department is working hard to meet the federal requirements mandated by the USDA, aiming for key fixes by March.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed a growing frustration with DHHS leadership, which has been dogged for months by questions over political hires, controversial contracts and technology problems.
Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, a member of the legislative committee that oversees information technology, said Thursday that he was surprised by news that the USDA had threatened the department with the suspension of administrative funding.
"I was under the impression that it had stabilized and things were getting on track," Tarte said. "That's just embarrassing at a minimum. This is one we need to jump on."
But Henry said DHHS has made information on the performance of NC FAST "readily available" on a regular basis to lawmakers and the public and that they "can look at the numbers to see how things are going."
"Have we been honest? The answer is yes," Henry said.
Several state Democratic legislators disagree.
It was a move McCrory aides dismissed, referencing the department's continuing efforts to improve the food stamp system.
"The governor has confidence that Secretary Wos and her team are working hard to ensure that those who need benefits receive benefits. Another gimmicky press scheme from the extreme left won’t help solve the problem," McCrory spokesman Ryan Tronovitch said in an email to WRAL News. "Gov. McCrory embraces solutions, not gimmicks.”
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