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North Carolina’s Health and Human Service Secretary Aldona Wos will be at the state legislature today, rolling out her plan to restructure the $18 billion state agency as well the state Medicaid program that provides healthcare for more than 1.5 million North Carolinians.

DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos

DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos

Wos, in a 14-page letter addressed to the heads of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee, reiterated to lawmakers that she came into her $1-a-year job to find the state’s largest agency in disarray.

“As you know, I inherited a department with a well-documented history of serious and chronic problems,” she wrote. “We have been on a path toward a sustainable department over the last 20 months and we have built the foundation for a stronger Medicaid program.”

She hopes the restructuring of Medicaid program will to fend off proposals in the legislature by Senate Republicans to move Medicaid, the massive $13 billion program that provides health care to low-income children, seniors and disabled residents – to its own standalone agency.

Wos, a wealthy Greensboro physician and prominent Republican fundraiser appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory in January 2013, has had a rocky tenure as the head of the DHHS, with controversies swirling over her granting big salaries and contracts to associates and McCrory campaign workers. Her first year on the job also saw botched rollouts of two technology projects that led to lengthy delays in medical providers getting paid for Medicaid services and in thousands of low-income families accessing food stamps

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Michelle Ford hasn’t received food stamp allotments since December, and the Greensboro mother says she’s out of options in trying to feed herself and her three children.

“We don’t have anything to eat,” Ford said. “This the way it’s been for the last two months, it seems like it’s just getting worse and worse.”

Ford usually receives $692 in food stamps a month to keep her family fed, but her January benefits never appeared. She said she’s neglected paying her light bill, car payment and other bills in order to keep her family fed.

“It’s been horrible,” she said, her voice clenched with tears. Her 18-year-old daughter stays with friends in order to get meals at night and was fired from a job at a McDonald’s stemming over a dispute about food she was taking to share with her family.

Ford’s problems come despite the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services declaring it has “reasonably achieved” an April 1 deadline set by federal officials to resolve a backlog of federally-funded food stamps cases statewide that had been in the tens of thousands for needy families.

A backlog of food stamps cases persisted for most of 2013 in the state when DHHS fully implemented a complicated benefits delivery system called N.C. FAST (Families Accessing Services Through Technology). County-level workers struggled to get the system to work, and cases piled up with some going weeks or months without needed food assistance. ncfast

In Guilford County, where Ford lives, the state discovered in the week before the April 1 deadline that workers had been keeping as many as 8,1000 recertification cases in a separate system then the N.C. FAST benefits delivery system. The head of the county’s social services director resigned shortly after the backlog became public.

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The head of Guilford County’s social services department announced his resignation Monday, days after a previously unknown backlog of 8,000 food stamp recertification cases was discovered Wednesday.

NC FAST logoRobert Williams resigned following a meeting Monday, according to the Greensboro News & Record, and explained his departure with a quote from a 1986 hit single of Janet Jackson’s.

“I felt it was best for me and best for the board,” Williams told the News & Record. “I feel like we’ve done some good work, done some good things while I’ve been here. But sometimes, to quote Janet Jackson, it’s ‘What have you done for me lately?”

The Guilford backlog, which was estimated to be at 8,100, last Wednesday, was down to a manageable few dozen cases today, according to the News & Record.

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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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The director of the N.C. Health and Human Services’ troubled public benefits technology and food stamp system is leaving his state position for a job in private industry.

Anthony Vellucci, the program director for N.C. FAST (Families Accessing Services Through Technology) is leaving for a job in private industry, according to a DHHS news release sent out late Wednesday afternoon.

He is taking a position with Maryland-based EngagePoint, a private healthcare and IT software company, and his last day with DHHS is March 7.

Vellucci, 40, was making $168,000 a year, including a $23,384 raise he received from Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos in June in order to counter a job offer. Vellucci’s raise was one of several $20,000-plus raises for top DHHS officials after N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory called for a salary freeze for state workers.

NC FAST has encountered significant issues over the last year, and the months-long delays for food stamps for thousands of struggling North Carolinians led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to threaten withdrawing administrative funding from the state. (Click here for more information about the backlog.)

The state agency had just met a Feb. 10 deadline set by USDA to resolve the backlog of thousands of high-priority food stamps cases, and is facing another deadline on March 31 to reduce the remaining backlog of cases.

Vellucci first came to DHHS in 2010, during Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration.

Angela Taylor, a DHHS employee since 1995 who joined the NC FAST team in August, will take over as NC FAST’s interim director.