Federal officials are warning that North Carolina has about two weeks to make significant progress toward clearing its massive backlog of food stamp applications or face losing millions in funding.
In a sternly worded letter issued Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave state Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos until Feb. 10 to meet three key milestones, including completing all benefits applications pending for more than 90 days. If the state fails, the $88 million in federal funding the state receives annually to manage its food stamp program could be terminated on March 12.
"Citizens 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 form their government," wrote Robin D. Bailey, Jr., regional administrator for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service. "Continued delays create undue hardship for the most vulnerable citizens of North Carolina."
North Carolina has struggled to process benefits applications since DHHS issued a faulty software update last summer to its new NC FAST computer system, which was supposed to streamline the process for applying and receiving government social services benefits. As a result, charities and food banks across the state have seen a surge in requests for help from those going hungry.
The July 15 software update caused computers at many county social service agencies across the state to freeze or crash, leading to huge backlogs in processing benefits applications and renewals. Counties later determined that the NC FAST portal didn't work well with a certain Internet browser.
Despite repeated claims of progress in clearing the backlog from Wos and other DHHS officials, the USDA letter says more than 23,000 families were still waiting as of Tuesday. Of those, 8,327 have been waiting more than three months to receive benefits that by law are supposed to be processed within 30 days.
The state agency also is still working through problems with the Medicaid billing system called NC Tracks that came online in July. At the start of 2014, the agency sent Medicaid cards for nearly 49,000 children to the wrong addresses - potentially costing the state millions in federal fines for exposing private medical information.
As happened with the privacy breach, DHHS officials waited until around 5 p.m. on Friday to let the public know about Thursday's letter warning that food stamp funding could be lost.
In public comments, Gov. Pat McCrory, Wos and other state officials have attempted to shift blame for the state's computer problems to county agencies and the federal Affordable Care Act. They say the faulty NC FAST update was rushed out ahead of schedule to meet an Oct. 1 federal deadline for processing Medicaid claims through the new system.
In his letter, the USDA's Bailey chastised Wos for blaming the federal health care law for the state's failure to process food stamp applications in a timely manner.
"It should be noted that many other states have implemented (the Affordable Care Act) without the dramatic impacts on (food stamps benefits) that have occurred in North Carolina," Bailey wrote.
In a written statement, state Deputy Secretary for Human Services Sherry Bradsher said the agency is encouraged by "positive conversations" between McCrory, Wos and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Bradsher said Vilsack verbally agreed to the state's plan for clearing up its food stamp application backlog.
"We strongly disagree with the federal government's threat to withhold Food and Nutrition Service administrative funds, which could adversely impact counties' abilities to assist families in need," Bradsher said. "We will continue working closely with our partners in county government to solve this problem."