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Food stamps backlog fixed? Not yet, Wos tells lawmakers (w/update)

N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos told lawmakers today that her agency may face problems clearing the last 2,000 cases of a massive backlog in emergency food assistance cases in time for a federal deadline.

“It will be extremely difficult and the stakes are very high,” Wos said in a legislative health oversight committee Wednesday. “There are no easy solutions are we move forward.”

Wos told lawmakers that 1,975 cases remained in the food stamps backlog.

A March 31 deadline was set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in response to a massive backlog that rose in December to more than 20,000 households waiting weeks to months for emergency food assistance.  The backlog stemmed from a steady increase in recent years for assistance and county-level social service workers encountering glitches and other problems with benefits-delivery system called N.C. FAST [1] (Families Accessing Services through Technology).

Though Wos told lawmakers today, as she had in last month’s oversight hearing, that things were improving, there are still those going without. Because of privacy laws surrounding government assistance like food stamps, it’s unclear if  scenarios like those of Maria Best, a Greensboro woman who has been waiting since December for food stamps,  are being reflected in DHHS caseload data.

We first spoke with Best, a 72-year-old and recent breast cancer survivor  living on a limited income, for a Feb. 12 article [2] about the food stamps delays.Reached today, Best said she has yet to get any assistance, and has been waiting for more than three months for help. The last time she received food stamps was in November.

“It’s getting really tough,” she said, adding that she’s had to limit putting gas in her car and has been living off odds and ends in her pantry and freezer.

Compounding the problem for her was last week’s ice storm that left many in the Piedmont without power for server days. Best’s children, who had been helping buy her food, lost all the food they had in their home to spoilage and aren’t in a financial position to help her this month.

“I’m so aggravated with all of it,” Best said. “They (DHHS) just fell down on the job big time.”

In December, USDA official wrote Wos and told her that more than $80 million of federal funding could be withdrawn if state health officials didn’t quickly fix the backlog. Federal officials repeated their warnings [3] in January, telling Wos that “(c)itizens 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.”

The agency met a Feb. 10 deadline to deal with those who had been waiting several months for benefits, an effort Wos described then [4] as “Herculean.”

NC FAST, the technology system that distributes food stamps, was apparently not working today, even as DHHS chief information officer Joe Cooper told inquiring lawmakers that “the system is functioning fine.”

WRAL reported the system problems via Twitter [5].


UPDATE: DHHS offered this update [8] Thursday morning, and said the NC FAST system was down for less than an hour yesterday.