Federal officials have “grave concern” about the continuing problems North Carolina is having in its food stamps delivery system, and threatened in December to suspend the state’s funding to run the program.
N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos got word of the potential suspension in a Dec. 11 letter sent to her by Donald Arnette, a regional administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food and nutritional safety division.
“This letter serves as advance notification that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) may soon be subject to the suspension or disallowance of administrative funds,” Arnette wrote in the letter.
The letter was obtained by N.C. Policy Watch from members of the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus. USDA has since provided a copy of the same letter (see below.)
In a Dec. 23 response provided by DHHS, Wos told federal officials that it was working to resolve the issues by working closely with social services workers on the county level.
“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 in the response. “We trust these corrective actions demonstrate our commitment to ensure that we comply with statutory requirements.”
A spokeswoman for USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services said federal authorities were still looking into the matter and had not made any determinations about what would happen to North Carolina’s funding.
Thousands of poor families were unable to receive food stamps last year when DHHS implemented a new computer system, NC FAST, resulting in a spike of demand for food at emegency food pantries in the state after many families were left without access to the federally-funded food vouchers . In an investigation last month, Raleigh television station WRAL found the agency downplayed the severity of the crisis.
The delays of food stamps are one of several issues the agency has faced fierce criticism over under the leadership of Wos, a Greensboro doctor and prominent Republican fundraiser appointed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory last January to run the agency.
USDA, leaning on estimates provided by DHHS, indicated in the Dec. 11 letter that 20,000 families were still experience delays in December, with nearly a third waiting three or more months for their food stamps.
“These delays are completely unacceptable and a serious failure on the part of North Carolina,” Arnette wrote in the letter to Wos. “We have grave concern for the low income people of North Carolina who are waiting for assistance.”
N.C. Policy Watch obtained a copy of the letter (see below) from members of the N.C. General Assembly’s black caucus who have been critical of the health agency’s performance and Wos’ leadership.
State Rep. Garland Pierce, a Scotland County Democrat and head of the legislative black caucus, said a copy of the letter was given to Democratic lawmakers by a unnamed citizen. They did not have copies of any responses DHHS might have sent to the federal agency.
“Legislators have the right to know about these things,” he said. “This department is just in disarray and it seems it’s not getting better, it’s getting worse.”
Members of the black legislative caucus are holding press conferences in Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Raleigh tomorrow to discuss the letter and other DHHS matters.
Last week, DHHS disclosed that it had sent nearly 49,000 Medicaid cards containing the private medical information of children to the wrong addresses. The agency has said the mailings violated federal health privacy laws, and violations of that type often result in hefty fines.
McCrory has defended Wos’ performance in the year she’s run the largest state agency, and has said the $18 billion agency was in bad shape when he inherited it from his Democratic predecessors.
“There’s been 10 years of operational neglect – not only in that department, but others,” Gov. Pat McCrory said Monday according to the News & Observer. “You can’t fix that in one year.”
Note: This post has changed from its original form to include the Dec. 23 response HHS Sec. Aldona Wos sent to USDA.
Questions? Comment? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or [email protected].