Feds send food stamps warning to DHHS in North Carolina

Jan. 11, 2014 @ 10:07 PM

RALEIGH — Federal regulators have warned North Carolina's health agency to resolve delays in processing food stamp applications, or face losing federal money to run the program.

The state Department of Health and Human Services said this past fall that problems with the NCFAST program that began in the summer were being worked out. A similar message was given to legislators at a General Assembly oversight committee in October.

NC FAST is a $300 million computer system launched earlier this year to streamline the process of applying and renewing government assistance for items such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

But in a letter to DHHS Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service office in Atlanta said the department didn't provide an action plan requested in November detailing how it would reduce application and renewal delays.

The delays affected more than 20,000 households, more than 6,000 of which had waited for more than three months for benefits, according to the Dec. 11 letter sent by FNS administrator Donald Arnette.

Without compliance, federal funds used to administer the program could be suspended or ended, the letter said.

"These delays are completely unacceptable and a serious failure on the part of North Carolina," the letter said.

"We have grave concern for the low income people of North Carolina who are waiting for assistance. DHHS must work aggressively to correct the issues" affecting people to purchase food, the letter added.

In response, DHHS offered a corrective action plan to regulators just before Christmas and said it was already being carried out. Defects with the NCFAST computer system have been fixed or addressed, according to the Dec. 23 letter signed by Wos' chief of staff. County social service directors, whose offices use NCFAST, also received reminders about what the federal government considers to be appropriate time frames for applications and renewals, the letter said.

"DHHS continues to work closely with county social services agencies and are monitoring our progress weekly," Sherry Bradsher, the department's deputy secretary for human services, said Thursday in a statement. "Our work will continue until all clients are receiving benefits in a timely manner."

Delays with NCFAST began after a software update went out July 15, leading to backlogs in the counties that handled the applications, according to officials. State workers were brought in to handle applications and to help counties reduce the early backlogs. Counties also determined NCFAST didn't work well with a certain Internet browser.

The threatened loss of federal funds is another setback for a department that is still working through problems with the Medicaid billing system called NC Tracks, which came online in July. An error with NC Tracks led the agency last week to send Medicaid cards for nearly 49,000 children to the wrong addresses.