Shawn Rogers is one of the thousands of needy North Carolinians caught up in what was a massive backlog of food stamps cases, with many waiting weeks or months for help.
He, his wife and four-year-old son have been waiting since December for help, when their food stamps were up for renewal and the family moved to Alamance County from neighboring Guilford County.
The family’s months-long wait comes despite a deadline Monday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture set for all backlogged cases to be processed.
N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos announced Tuesday afternoon that the deadline had been “reasonably achieved” with only 375 pending cases left in the state.
As of Tuesday, Rogers, who is on disability because of psychological issues, said his food stamps benefits card was still showing a $0 balance. He has turned to area food banks for donated canned goods and family members who buy him meat to help supplement the family’s diet.
“We’re getting pretty short on food,” said Rogers. “Something has got to be done.”
The USDA deadline Monday to clear backlogged food stamp cases put in jeopardy $88 million in federal administrative funding for food stamps, also known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). In North Carolina, DHHS manages the program that serves approximately 1.5 million low-income households in the state.
A massive food stamp backlog persisted throughout much of 2013 when DHHS fully implemented a complex benefits delivery technology system called N.C. FAST (Families Accessing Services through Technology) last spring. County-level social services workers, the ones to process applications and food stamp renewals, encountered major glitches with the new system, making it impossible in some counties to access the system at times as they also dealt with steadily increasing numbers of people seeking help.
Wos’ Tuesday letter to USDA officials emphasized how the state whittled down the once-massive backlog to just a few hundred cases by authorizing overtime and shifting workers from other areas to assist.
DHHS officials also discovered last week that there were as many as 8,100 pending recertification cases in Guilford County being kept in a separate computer system than NC FAST. Wos said in her letter that most of those cases were processed over the last week.
“While we are pleased with the progress the state and counties have made, we will continue to work hard as we move forward,” Wos wrote in Tuesday’s letter. “Both state and county staff has begun analyzing work load and reviewing business processes, which is a critical component of having a sound sustainability plan.”
USDA officials will be making their decision in coming days about whether North Carolina satisfied their deadline, but indicated they were happy benefits were flowing through to families again.
“USDA is pleased with North Carolina progress over the past several weeks to ensure eligible individuals and families have access to the SNAP benefits,” said Regan Hopper, a USDA spokeswoman, in a written statement. “We will continue to work closely with the State to monitor their continued progress and providing technical assistance as needed.”
The state’s emergency response to contend with the food stamps deadline shifted staff and focus from other areas of DHHS, including the processing of applications for Medicaid, the federal health program for low-income seniors, disabled persons and children and their families.
The state estimates it is running three months behind in processing Medicaid applications, with 81,000 cases pending more than 90 days according to Raleigh television station WRAL.
Food stamps one of several DHHS headaches
The handling of the food stamps and NC FAST crisis has been one of several issues faced by Wos, a Greensboro physician and wealthy Republican fundraiser appointed in January 2013 by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory to lead the state’s largest agency for $1 a year.
She’s faced criticism for hiring inexperienced McCrory campaign workers at high salaries, bungled IT roll-outs of N.C FAST and N.C. TRACKS, a Medicaid billing system that several doctors has left some providers waiting months for payments; and a botched mailing of nearly 49,000 children’s Medicaid cards to incorrect addresses that violated federal medical privacy laws.
While several Democratic lawmakers have called for her resignation, Wos also faced some unusually sharp criticism from Republican lawmakers at a hearing last week while discussing a proposal to transform the state’s $13 billion Medicaid program.
“Now we see a lot of people leaving has really put your department in a really tough position,” Republican state Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown told Wos, according to the Associated Press. But “how can we as a General Assembly feel safe or comfortable that you can implement a reform package when we have all of these problems?”
The food stamps backlog may also be creating budget issues for Wos, with the state agency asking USDA for additional funds to pay for the administrative costs DHHS incurred contending with the backlogged cases.
DHHS communications staff confirmed the budget dispute in an email Monday, but spokesman Kevin Howell refused to provide further details about how much DHHS went over in its budget, and how much federal money it is requesting from USDA.
“The original FNS [Food Nutritional System] quarterly cash allotment from USDA was not sufficient to cover the administrative reimbursement, and DHHS is requesting an additional cash allotment from the USDA,” Howell said, according to a written statement. “The state will pay its share using already-budgeted state appropriations.”
Requests for comment from the state budget office were also unanswered.
Caught without food
Rogers, the Alamance County man, said he’s spoken with staff from both Alamance and Guilford county offices to resolve his food stamps case but has yet to see any progress.
Workers from both counties have told the family that a hold on their account had been lifted and that food stamp benefits will soon be released.
But that’s yet to happen.
“They’re saying the same thing, to be patient, people are working left and right to fix this,” Rogers said. “I’ve heard it and heard it and heard it.”
Melanie Richards, a Guilford County single mother of four, said her food stamps stopped in January when she applied for recertification. Working then as a property manager, she began using money earmarked for other bills to put food in her children’s stomachs.
“I do not have a car and so using my work income for groceries made it impossible for me to get to work without income,” Richards said. “Same for my bills, every dime of my income tax and final paycheck has gone to purchasing food.”
She lost her job of two years in late February when she couldn’t afford transportation to get to work. She’s worried now she may be evicted for missing rent payments.
After reaching out to a state representative’s office for help, Richards’ monthly allotment of $692 in food stamps was reinstated on Tuesday. She’s hoping that a local charity can help her with rent and utility bills while she looks for another job.
“Just being able to cook my children a good dinner tonight is priceless to me,” Richards wrote in an email Tuesday.
Those still waiting for food stamps in Guilford County, where a large backlog was discovered last week, can call the social services department and leave a message at (336) 641-3100. Calls should be returned within 24 hours.
Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or firstname.lastname@example.org.