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Governor rejects calls for DHHS secretary’s resignation

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com @JordanGreenYES

Amid revelations that the US Department of Agriculture is threatening to withhold funding from the NC Department of Health and Human Services over delays in the delivery of food-stamp benefits, members of the NC Legislative Black Caucus are calling for the resignation of the state agency’s head.

Citing a train of disasters at the agency that also includes mailing 49,000 Medicaid cards to the wrong enrollees and the calamitous rollout of a new Medicaid billing system, NC Sen. Earline Parmon said, “Our state is in failure of one of the most significant functions it performs using federal dollars to assist the very neediest and poorest people in our state.”

Parmon was joined by Reps. Evelyn Terry and Ed Hanes Jr., fellow Forsyth County Democrats and members of the legislative black caucus, at a press at the Enterprise Center in Winston- Salem on Jan. 9. Other members of the caucus held simultaneous press conferences across the state to drum out the same message.

The lawmakers highlighted a Dec. 11 letter from US Department of Agriculture Regional Administrator Donald E. Arnette to Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos threatening “a formal letter that your agency is subject to suspension of disallowance of SNAP administrative funds” over continued delays in benefits.

“These delays are completely unacceptable and a serious failure on the part of North Carolina,” Arnette said. “Access to nutrition assistant program benefits for every eligible person who meets the qualifications, needs the help, and seeks assistance is a priority for [the US Food and Nutrition Service]. We have grave concern for the low-income people of North Carolina who are waiting for assistance.”

Parmon, who serves on a legislative oversight committee that received reports from Wos’ agency on Dec. 13, expressed frustration that until recently she had not been informed about the federal government’s increasing concern about the state agency.

But Gov. Pat McCrory quickly dismissed calls for Wos’ resignation.

“This letter is almost a month old, and DHHS has already taken corrective action and continues to work with the  USDA on the issues raised,” spokesman Ryan Tronovitch said in a statement e- mailed to the media. “The governor has confidence that Secretary Wos and her team are working hard to ensure that those who need benefits, receive benefits. Another gimmicky press scheme from the extreme left won’t help solve the problem — Governor McCrory embraces solutions, not gimmicks.”

While some Republican lawmakers have spoken out in committee hearings, none have joined the calls for Wos’ resignation.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say she should resign, because I’m not close enough,” said Sen. Stan Bingham, a Davidson County Republican who formerly chaired the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services. “She came highly recommended as being good at what she does. I’m sure she’s as frustrated as I am.”

Since the US Department of Agriculture threatened suspension of administrative funds in December, delays in food-stamp benefits in North Carolina appear to have worsened. Arnette indicated in December that more than 20,000 households across the state continued to experience significant delays, with more than 6,000 waiting for more than three months.

The number of households experiencing delays in excess of a month rose to 27,000 by Dec. 31, according to numbers the agency provided to WRAL News.

Wayne Black, director of the division of social services at DHHS, said agency leaders believe the numbers might be inflated due to duplications.

“I think it might be a number of reasons,” he said. “There’s an opportunity for people to apply for benefits through ePASS. Some people attempted to do applications through ePASS. There may be a quote-unquote application that wasn’t completed and it’s there in the system. We need to double-check those numbers, and if there are folks who are getting their benefits, clean it up.”

In August, the agency discovered that problems processing applications and recertifications by county departments of social services were caused by a lack of interoperability between Internet Explorer browsers and the Curam software on which the new NC FAST system is based. Wos wrote in a letter obtained by WRAL that the NC FAST project team issued a written guidance to the counties to switch to Google Chrome as a “work-around” to avoid “kick-outs” and “white screens.”

While Wos prepared corrective action plans for federal regulators that acknowledged interoperability problems, her public comments suggested the agency was deflecting blame.

“It was the counties who weren’t quite well prepared and therefore the state stepped in at that point when it was evident that some of the counties were struggling to assist, to work with the counties, to figure out creative ways of how to get this specific county to where it needed to be,” Wos told WRAL in a Nov. 7 interview. “So it’s not the computer glitches or whatever word one would want to use.”

Black said that Wos never intended to shift responsibility.

“I will guarantee you that the secretary never meant to imply that counties are to blame,” Black said. “ It is a major undertaking to implement NC FAST. There were major caseload increases because of the economic downturn. I know because I was there. I was the director of social services in Surry County until May 31.”

Black said that DHHS has added 160 staff to do trainings and perform techni- cal assistance to help the counties. !

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