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NC Health Secretary Wos Can't Say When Food Stamp Delays Will End

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com

North Carolina's food stamp delays are unacceptable, but there's no timeline for when they'll stop. That's what North Carolina Secretary of Health and Human Services AldonaWos told lawmakers Tuesday. A legislative committee also grilled her about her department mailing nearly 50,000 children's insurance cards to the wrong addresses.

The problems in Health and Human Services are affecting the poorest people in North Carolina the most.

State data show that roughly 20,000 North Carolinians have been waiting more than two months to get food stamps. And nearly 50,000 children need new Medicaid ID numbers because the state mailed their personal information to the wrong people, a violation of federal privacy laws.

In the committee meeting, Secretary Wos gave a public apology to everyone affected.   

"My expectation when it comes to the work of the department is that we get it right 100 percent of the time," she said. "We did not meet that expectation, and I am terribly disappointed."

Wos said her department is in the process of creating new Medicaid IDs for the children affected by the privacy breach. She said those children can still get medical services in the meantime.

She said an investigation into what went wrong found at least one person in the department screwed up. Since that investigation is still going, she wouldn't say if anyone will be fired.

On the food stamp delays, several Democratic lawmakers raised this point with Wos:

"I feel like we were kept in the dark," said Senator Floyd McKissick.

McKissick said Wos had given lawmakers the impression that the state had worked out the kinks with NC FAST. That's the online system it made counties start using for food stamp applications last year.

"And that is why I was very much surprised and almost startled when I saw the letter from December 11, which indicated there were 20,000 people who still had major recertification problems and over 6,000 hadn't received benefits in three months," he said.

That letter was from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees food stamps. It threatened to take away North Carolina's administrative funding for the program if the state doesn't fix the problems. 

Wos said her department has been forthcoming with lawmakers in previous meetings. She asked Wayne Black from her department to speak to that.

"When I came here in October and addressed this committee, I talked about the fact that we were seeing improvement on the ground," Black said. "That was true. What we were talking about then was the fact that there were thousands of folks that were not getting their benefits on time. That number was going down. It was."

But Black said new problems popped up as the state started working Medicaid applications into the system. Counties started using NC FAST for Medicaid applications in October.

Also, Black says the federal letter might be wrong in saying 20,000 people had significant food stamp delays, even though the state provided that figure.

"About half of those numbers may be of folks that have a duplicate or another application pending that has not been resolved, but they're already getting benefits," he said.

That explanation startled Senator Martin Nesbitt, who said checking for duplicates shouldn't be rocket science.

"You look and see if the same name is in there twice," he said. "And I'm sure that the people there know that - I’m not being cute about this. It's just what strikes me is nobody's looked."

And Nesbitt pointed out that the state still has several other types of public assistance to work into NC FAST. That's the whole point of the new system - to eventually have a sort of one-stop shop.

Nesbitt asked when the current problems with food stamps will end.

Secretary Wos didn't have an answer. She said her department will come up with some estimates.