RALEIGH — North Carolina has met a deadline to eliminate a large backlog of delayed food stamp applications that threatened the loss of funds to administer the program, the state’s health secretary said Tuesday. But federal regulators will ultimately make that call.
Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos told legislators that county social services offices, state workers and volunteers worked long hours to process more than 20,000 applications and renewals by this week’s deadline. As of Monday, there were 25 applications remaining but Wos said county officials were still waiting for information from the applicants or continuing to try to contact them.
The issue is of high importance in Robeson County, which has about 23,000 households on food stamps, and provides about $80 million a year in benefits, the most in the state. Because of that, the county adopted a temporary voucher program using money allocated by the county Board of Commissioners, and also set up a food pantry.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture told DHHS in late January that it needed to complete all backlogged benefits applications of more than 90 days by Monday or face the loss of $88 million in federal funding the state receives annually to manage the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“We have successfully achieved our first milestone with the USDA,” Wos told a legislative oversight committee, adding that “DHHS has worked tirelessly and took unprecedented steps to get the job done.”
Wos said more than 290 state workers travelled to regional processing centers or county offices to help with the applications. Counties hired temporary workers, and employees within the General Assembly even volunteered. Some worked nights and weekends.
“Our staff worked every day to reduce that massive backlog,” Wos said. The USDA also told the state to complete backlogged applications subject to expedited processing.
The USDA federal agency had received the state’s report Tuesday and was reviewing it, a spokesman said. The state isn’t done with meeting the federal government’s demands. By March 31, the state must eliminate any applications that are now waiting for longer than 30 days, the threshold the federal government uses to evaluate timely processing.
There were more than 1,200 applications waiting longer than 30 days as of Monday, according to DHHS data. That number is subject to change as the state receives 45,000 new food stamp applications per month.
“The goal that we have set for ourselves is to catch up and to stay caught up,” said Sherry Bradsher, deputy secretary for human services. She and Wos said the department was putting together a plan to do that and help county social service offices work more efficiently.
The department would bring in workers again to help if a backlog surfaced again, DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry said later. It wasn’t immediately clear how much the state or county governments had paid for overtime or temporary workers.
Members of the General Assembly’s oversight committee still wanted assurances the backlog won’t creep up again. They were particularly interested in NC FAST, a computer system used by county offices to enter applications for those receiving government benefits.
“I’m really concerned that we don’t get in this position where we were again,” said Sen. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth.
An initial backlog began last summer as an NC FAST software update caused computers to freeze or crash. State health officials said in October that problem — and the backlog — had been addressed. But the backlog grew again. DHHS said, due to increased responsibilities for county case workers as NC FAST began determining eligibility for Medicaid based on new income thresholds.
The NC FAST problems that led to the most recent backlog — and identified in a December USDA letter — have been addressed, Bradsher said. “There have really been no performance issues.”
The application delays have contributed to increase demands at food banks and other non-governmental social service offices. Legislators fielded calls from families worried that they wouldn’t have enough funds to keep food on the table.
“The thing that disappoints me is it took seven months for us to address the backlog and we had thousands of people that were harmed in the process,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.