NC reduces backlog on food-stamp applications enough to meet federal standards

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The U.S. Agriculture Department informed state health officials Tuesday they have made enough progress on eliminating a large backlog of food-stamp applications to be considered back in compliance with federal standards.

USDA officials sent letters of concern about the NC FAST backlog to state Health Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos on Jan. 23 and Feb. 14.

At its peak last fall, the combined backlog of applications and recertifications was more than 35,000 cases out of more than 825,000 cases statewide, or 4.2 percent, according to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

USDA regional administrator Robin Bailey Jr. sent a letter Tuesday acknowledging that DHHS “has met the requirements to reduce its backlog” of untimely delayed applications and recertifications. Untimely delayed is defined as going unprocessed for more than 30 days.

If DHHS had failed to meet the USDA’s March 31 compliance deadline, financing for the state’s administrative costs of NC FAST could have ended, potentially as early as May. The Associated Press reported that could represent as much as $88 million. The sanctions would not affect federal financing for food stamps.

Bailey said USDA would “continue to closely monitor case processing data to ensure the state remains in compliance.” That includes DHHS providing weekly reports on its corrective steps, and on pending applications and recertifications that are less than 30 days old. The reports will be required through at least June 15.

The USDA’s standards involve monitoring states’ timeliness rates on a quarterly basis using the latest six-month timeliness data. For states whose rates are between 90 and 95 percent, regional offices provide technical assistance to improve their timeliness. A state below 90 percent must have a corrective action plan in place until its timeliness rate reaches 95 percent.

Wos said in a brief statement today she “looks forward to continuing our joint efforts to sustain timely processing of food stamp cases.”

Wos said at legislative hearings March 12 and March 26 that the state and the counties “must assure they have appropriate staffing levels with the appropriate skill sets to address this workload.”

Wos sent a letter April 1 to USDA that updated DHHS’ progress on the backlog and expressed her optimism that the agency “reasonably achieved” the goal of clearing the backlog. The USDA responded April 1 with a statement that it was “pleased with North Carolina’s progress over the past several weeks to ensure eligible individuals and families have access to benefits.”

The USDA acknowledgement could provide Wos and DHHS management with one cooler hot-button topic at Thursday’s monthly legislative oversight committee hearing.

DHHS officials are scheduled to provide updates on NC FAST, the NC Tracks Medicaid claims processing system, and firmer fiscal 2013-14 expense figures for the state’s overall Medicaid program. Legislators from both parties have expressed frustration with DHHS’ handling of all three issues over the past nine months.

As of Tuesday, DHHS and county departments of social services officials had reduced the statewide backlog to 379 untimely applications – 246 with long-term delays in processing and 133 listed as having shorter delays.

For the Triad and Northwest North Carolina, there were 112 untimely applications – 69 long-term and 43 shorter delays. Overall, there are 11,796 pending applications statewide, including 1,717 in the region.

In terms of untimely recertifications, there are 66 statewide, including 27 in the Triad and Northwest N.C. Overall, there are 24,097 recertifications considered in progress by DHHS, including 4,324 in the region.

For most of the last seven months, Forsyth County has ranked among the top five counties in terms of applications backlog. There were 538 pending applications in Forsyth as of Tuesday.

Going paperless under NC FAST case management system – which was fully implemented in July – proved challenging for county and state health officials from the start. The backlog snowballed when county DSS officials started reporting significant glitches with the computer system.

Wos was criticized by several Democratic legislators for initially blaming county health officials for not putting enough effort and personnel into training on NC FAST.

In August, Forsyth DSS began referring clients experiencing delays to local food banks for special two-week food packages.

At an October legislative hearing, Wos said she was confident NC FAST issues had been resolved and the backlog was being reduced.

However, the USDA letter of Jan. 23 revealed that backlog issues had become worse, not better.

Wos told the USDA and legislators Feb. 11 that DHHS had needed what she called “Herculean efforts” by state and county health officials that included 18-hour work days and weekend work over a 19-day period. DHHS and Wos were criticized for not providing extensive state assistance in a timely fashion before the initial push.

Similar overtime efforts were required to meet the March 31 deadline, particularly after Wos revealed the discovery of a backlog of 8,100 claims in Guilford County on March 26.

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