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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 (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 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.

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N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos announced at a legislative hearing this morning that her department met a federal deadline yesterday to clear a backlog of families waiting for emergency food assistance.

Wos told lawmakers that “Herculean efforts” were used by county-based and state workers to address more than 23,000 households that, in late January, had been waiting weeks or months for federally-funded food stamps.

DHHS used 290 state state, hired temporary workers, made home visits and used volunteer time offered by a handful of legislative assistants to meet the deadline, she said.

She said there were only 25 cases remaining of the thousands the U.S. Department of Agriculture called to be eliminated. The federal agency threatened withholding $80 million in funding in December and January if North Carolina didn’t quickly address the issue.

The logjam of cases first began popping up last spring as the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services implemented pieces of a complex benefits delivery system called NC FAST that county-level workers had difficulty maneuvering or even getting to work in some case.

“I can assure you that DHHS will continue to work as aggressively as we have,” Wos said.

While both Republican and Democratic lawmakers said they were pleased the vast majority of the backlog had been handled, some expressed concern about how long it took the state agency to ensure needy families were getting food.

“I’m very gratified that we finally have this backlog behind us,” said state Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat. “The thing that disappoints me that is that it took seven months to address the backlog and we had several thousand people harmed in the process.”

Updated caseload numbers are available here and here. The USDA deadline for the agency was to clear a backlog of cases of the most hard-pressed families, many of them  in emergency situations.

The agency will need to clear the entire backlog or food stamp applications and recertifications by March 31, currently at 14,333 recertifications and 754 applications, according to DHHS documents. (13,821 of the recertifications are only one to 14 days behind, and are considered “timely” by DHHS and USDA)

Below is the letter that Wos sent to USDA officials yesterday.

USDA February 10 2014 by NC Policy Watch

 

The backlog of North Carolina’s food stamps applications is continuing to go down, as county and state health and human services workers put in overtime to meet a Monday deadline set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Revised numbers released Tuesday by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services  how that there are still more than 4,000 applications pending statewide, including more than 800 that have pending for more than three months.

Click here and here to see DHHS’ county breakdowns of the existing backlog.

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DHHSAs Chris Fitzsimon points out in this morning’s “Monday Numbers” edition of the Fitzsimon File, the flubs just keep on coming at Aldona Wos’ Department of Health and Human Services:

4—number of days since the federal government sent a letter to state DHHS officials saying North Carolina would lose federal funding for operations of the state food stamp program if problems and case backlogs were not addressed in two weeks (“Federal money for food stamp management could be suspended in March, News & Observer January 24, 2014)

30—number of days that food stamp applications must be processed under federal law (Ibid)

20,243—number of food stamp claims in North Carolina that have been waiting more than 30 days as of January 24 (“USDA issues more warnings to state health agency, WRAL-TV, January 24, 2014)

11,493—number of food stamp claims that have been pending more than 60 days as of January 24 (Ibid)

8,002—number of food stamp claims that have been pending more than 90 days as of January 24 (Ibid)

5,934—number of food stamp claims that have been pending more than 120 days as of January 24 (Ibid)

8,963—number of cases in which deadline was missed that are hardship cases, where families have very little income (“Federal money for food stamp management could be suspended in March, News & Observer January 24, 2014)

Read the letter from the feds by clicking here . Read the entire column by clicking here.

Aldona Wos

NCHHS Sec. Aldona Wos

Can’t keep up or remember all the headline-grabbing goofs over the last year at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services?

WRAL reporter Mark Binker compiled a chronological list here.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services under Secretary Aldona Wos has rarely gone a few weeks this year without contending with some major crisis or controversy.

Here’s a snippet of some of the problems, though it’s worth clicking on the WRAL link to refresh your memory of just what’s gone sour at the state agency over the last year.

From WRAL:

Sept. 2013: Chief of staff paid $37,000 “severance”

The Department of Health and Human Services paid Thomas L. Adams $37,227.25 as “severance” after he served just one month as chief of staff at the department. Adams’ severance payment stood out because he occupied an exempt position, meaning he could be hired and fired at will with little notice and no need for the state to give cause and no appeal rights. The settlement was in addition to $14,000 in salary he earned over a short tenure.

And

Oct. 2013: State closes off WIC benefits for women and children as questions rise about whether the move was necessary Questions remain on WIC closure

Dysfunction in Washington came to North Carolina as the partial federal government shutdown stemmed the flow of tax dollars to North Carolina. The Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, nutrition program was one of the hardest hit by the shutdown. North Carolina announced it would stop processing applications due to the shutdown. But the federal government raised questions about that response, saying that the state should have had a reserve to allow them to carry on work through the shutdown period. Question intensified because WIC programs in other states continued operating.

And, most recently:

Jan. 2014: Doctors sue over Medicaid billing problems

North Carolina’s Medicaid billing system has been so dysfunctional that it costs doctors time, money and patients, according to a class-action lawsuit filed by a group of medical providers in early January 2014. The suit alleges the state Department of Health and Human Services and some of its computer services providers were negligent in developing and implementing a new Medicaid claims billing system, known as NCTracks. Doctors from Cumberland, Nash, New Hanover, Robeson and Wake counties are part of the suit and claim “NCTracks has been a disaster, inflicting millions of dollars in damages upon North Carolina’s Medicaid providers.”