Feds threaten food stamp funding cut to N.C.

By Keith Strange

January 31, 2014

DOBSON — County social services officials say needy families will still receive food stamp benefits regardless of whether the federal government shutters North Carolina’s administrative funding for the program.

And that could very well be the case in the near future.

The threats of cuts to the $88 million the state receives to manage the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are the result of delays across the state in processing food stamp applications as a result of problems implementing new software touted as a way to make the process more efficient.

Federal regulators have warned North Carolina’s health agency to resolve delays in processing food stamp applications, or face losing federal money to run the program.

In a strongly-worded letter to Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) head Dr. Aldona Wos dated Jan. 23, U.S.D.A. Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) Regional Administrator Robin Bailey noted that the state is still seeing “persistent problems” with getting benefits to families.

“(The U.S.D.A. Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees food stamp funding) is alarmed by the persistent problems despite our extensive technical assistance and repeated communications concerning the severity of the situation,” Bailey wrote in the letter. “Citizens of North Carolina that need help putting food on the table are not receiving the basic level of responsiveness and quality of service that they deserve from their government.”

Bailey said that according to data supplied by the state, more than 20,000 households are seeing overdue applications for assistance, with more than 6,000 of those waiting more than three months to receive benefits.

The maximum amount of time allowed by federal law is 30 days, and families who show a hardship should receive benefits within a week.

Bailey said federal funding could be threatened if “significant corrective action” is not taken by Feb. 10.

By that date, the state Department of Health and Human Services should:

• Complete all backlogged applications subject to seven-day processing.

• Complete all applications subject to 30-day processing that are over 90 days overdue.

• Complete all recertifications that are pending over 90 days.

Federal regulators say they expect “full resolution” of the remaining backlog and all new applications by March 31, Bailey wrote.

“Monitoring of the overdue cases in this situation is critical,” he added, noting that he expects regular weekly reports until the backlog of applications and processing has been resolved.

“If DHHS fails to comply with the requirements outlined in this letter FNS will issue a formal warning on Feb. 10,” Bailey warned. “DHHS would have 30 days from receipt of the formal warning to submit additional evidence that it is in compliance or submit a revised corrective action plan. If DHHS’s response is inadequate, FNS will suspend federal funding for state administrative expenses as early as March 12, 2014.

But local officials say that regardless of whether or not the feds cut the state’s administrative allocation the benefits will have to be delivered because the program is federally mandated. The county receives about $500,000 a year to administer and fund the program, which provides food stamps to about 7,000 households in the county.

“We will still be required to provide the services to people who are eligible even if funding is cut,” she said.

Preston said if the threatened cuts become a reality, she will have to approach the county’s board of commissioners to ask for money.

“First, we would approach them for guidance on how to proceed, and that very much depends on how the state proceeds,” she said.

Locally, Preston said the county is faring much better at resolving the backlog than some other localities.

“I’m confident the county will meet the (Feb. 10) deadline,” she said. “But I don’t know how that state will proceed if some counties meet the deadline and others don’t. That’s the question at this point.”

Preston said problems with the software, dubbed NC FAST for North Carolina Families Accessing Services through Technology, are persisting. These problems prevent her from having concrete numbers on how many county families are experiencing delays.

“We’re working reports that are sent each day, and I’ve asked for an update on the numbers, but there are some questions,” she said. “With NC FAST, the reports are different. There is a disconnect between what we need and what we’re able to pull from the system as far as reports.”

Keith Strange can be reached at 336-719-1929 or via Twitter at @strangereporter.