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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 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.

David RibarProfessor David Ribar of the UNCG Department of Economics is a frequent font of common sense on his blog Applied Rationality. This morning’s post: “SNAP in NC wasn’t broken before” is one such example:

“The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) under Governor Pat McCrory and Secretary Aldona Wos has fouled up one task after another. As I’ve been discussing in the last few posts, the department’s problems with its NC FAST have delayed food assistance for tens of thousands of disadvantaged households, creating a different kind of NC FAST.

A constant refrain from Gov. McCrory and Sec. Wos throughout these debacles has been that they inherited a ‘broken agency.’ Records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, reveal a different story and show that the previous administration managed its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) caseload competently. Read More

Aldona Wos 2

Raleigh’s News & Observer doesn’t pull many punches with this morning’s scathing editorial about the state Department of Health and Human Services and its embattled leader, Secretary Aldona Wos. As the piece points out, Wos is simply over-matched:

“The secretary, who prior to her appointment had never done anything close to supervising a state department with over 17,000 employees, seems simply overwhelmed and underqualified for the job. Gov. Pat McCrory, well aware of Wos’s mega-fundraising for Republicans, continues to stand by his ill-advised appointment, digging in against calls for Wos to resign even as the problems at DHHS have multiplied… Read More