Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Blame-shifting during the NC FAST

Disadvantaged households in North Carolina applying to begin or continue receiving help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) have suffered through unprecedented and unconscionable delays ever since the state made changes to its NC FAST processing system in July.

Within a month of the switch-over, the backlog of unprocessed applications and recertifications ballooned to nearly 70,000.

By November, NC was reporting to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that approximately 22,500 households still had applications or recertifications delayed by at least a month and that approximately 6,500 households had those actions delayed by at least three months. The delays caused the USDA to warn that it would have to withhold the federal share of SNAP's administrative funding if processing did not improve.

Instead of improving, the state's backlog grew worse in December.

The delays have led to another kind of NC FAST, one in which poor families go hungry and in which food pantries are depleted.

Throughout this self-inflicted debacle, the state official "responsible" for the administration of SNAP, State Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos has cast blame far and wide--basically everyplace except the agency that she runs.

Targets of Secretary Wos' blame-shifting include:
  • Former Gov. Perdue. Sec. Wos claims she inherited a broken agency; nevermind that the switch-over to NC FAST occurred on Sec. Wos' watch, that the previous agency managed to get food stamp applications processed in time, and that Sec. Wos has been on the job for a year.
  • County case workers. Processing of food stamp applications slowed to a trickle immediately after the NC FAST system was introduced in July. Sec. Wos blamed county case-workers for being inadequately trained on her super-duper system, and her state social services director told case workers to "consult the training tool." But even as she and her staff said this, Sec. Wos had records showing show that nearly all county workers had been properly trained. It turns out that processing slowed to a crawl mainly because Sec. Wos' system did not work on the Internet Explorer browser--something county workers discovered on their own and had to point out to her. The browser problem went undiagnosed for a month by Sec. Wos' crack staff; meanwhile the unprocessed applications and recertifications continued to pile up.
  • The media. Sec. Wos also blamed news organizations for creating a panic that led to excessive calls and inquiries to county agencies. However, as the delays in SNAP processing not only continue but grow worse, the media-did-it explanation wears thin.
  • President Obama. Sec. Wos now blames President Obama and the Affordable Care Act for her agency's problems. The ACA requires states to streamline and align applications to the Medicaid and S-CHIP public health insurance systems with other social insurance programs, including SNAP. However, the rules for making these alignments were proposed in August 2011 (two years before NC FAST came on line) and finalized in March 2012 (15 months before the system went live). In other words, the rules were in place when Sec. Wos walked through the door. Moreover, the rules for SNAP change frequently. There are changes with almost every major farm bill, changes associated with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and changes when states request and received special waivers from the SNAP rules. Somehow other states managed to successfully navigate the rule changes, but Sec. Wos's agency did not. Change in the SNAP has many precedents; the delays experienced by poor NC families do not.
  • Bad numbers. Sec. Wos's agency is also now blaming bad numbers for over-stating the delays associated with the NC FAST system, with her state social services director testifying that "as many as half of the those numbers we're reporting to USDA may be of folks who have a duplicate of another application pending." This excuse makes it sound like the numbers magically appeared and ignores the fact that they were generated by Sec. Wos' own NC FAST system. Also, even if half the applications and recertifications are duplicates, there are still tens of thousands of desperate NC families waiting for food assistance.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sec. Wos's agency has taken issue with USDA's definition of "untimely."
Previous administrations have routinely processed SNAP applications and recertifications; other states are successfully processing them now.

Sec. Wos' blame-shifting is as unproductive as it is unprofessional. Despite working in her position with a salary of only $1 per year, she is clearly being overpaid. It's long past time to bring in responsible leadership.

Hungry families in NC deserve no less.