UPDATE: Guilford County officials are reporting 8,100 backlogged food stamp applications  before next week’s deadline.
Guilford County is sitting on an unknown number of pending applications for food stamps, a development North Carolina health officials say puts the state at risk of not meeting a March 31 federal deadline.
N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos informed lawmakers about the problem in Guilford County at a health oversight committee hearing Wednesday morning about the state’s Medicaid budget. She said the news came just five days before a U.S. Department of Agriculture to clear the last of what was a massive backlog of people waiting for federally-funded food assistance.
“Guilford County may have a backlog that is more significant than previously reported” Wos said, adding that she learned of the problem just minutes before the meeting. “We are concerned.”
Wos did not provide many details about the scope of the Guilford County issue, other than to say that it appeared that the county social services staff had not entered the information into the state’s benefits delivery system called N.C. FAST.
“This is not a problem with the NC FAST system,” Wos said.
She told lawmakers that state officials depend on counties to provide accurate information.
“We only know what the counties have entered and we are reliant on their accuracy,” Wos said.
DHHS staff was on its way to Greensboro to assess the problem, she said.
Wos said that, other than the recently realized issue in Guildford County, the state was on track to meet a March 31 deadline set by the U.S Department of Agriculture, with just 520 pending cases in the state.
The backlogs stemmed from the troubled rollout of the N.C. FAST (Families Accessing Services through Technology) system last spring as well as heavy caseloads at the county level as requests for food stamps have doubled in some urban counties.
In December, a USDA official wrote Wos and told her that more than $80 million of federal funding could be withdrawn if state health officials didn’t quickly fix the backlog.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  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  as “Herculean.”
Over the last few months, N.C. Policy Watch had heard from multiple people in Guilford County having issues receiving food stamps, including 72-year-old Maria Best of Greensboro, who has been without food assistance since November.
From our March 12 post  about the food stamps backlog:
We first spoke with Best, a 72-year-old and recent breast cancer survivor living on a limited income, for a Feb. 12 article  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.”
Note: This post will likely be updated as we learn more.
Are you waiting for food stamps? We’d like to hear from you. Email reporter Sarah Ovaska at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (919) 861-1463.