- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 15, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The federal government says it’s satisfied that North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services has met the final deadline to whittle down its backlog of food stamp applications at local social service offices.

In a letter to DHHS Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos, a U.S. Agriculture Department regulator said the department had met the requirement to reduce its backlog by March 31.

“The state has made significant strides in providing services to those households that experienced delays in receiving” food stamps, Regional administrator Robin Bailey wrote to Wos in a letter released late Tuesday by USDA.

Previously, USDA had threatened the state with losing $88 million to administer the program unless tens of thousands of pending cases were resolved. The state had met an intermediate deadline in early February, but several thousand cases still were behind schedule a week before the deadline, most of them in Guilford County.

“We are pleased that the USDA has acknowledged our commitment to North Carolina’s most vulnerable citizens,” Wos said in a release Tuesday night. Bailey still wants weekly reports from DHHS for at least the next 60 days.

In January, county social service offices faced a backlog of more than 20,000 applications and renewals that were pending for more than 90 days. State workers and temporary workers hired by counties were brought in to process claims and meet the February requirements. The most recent deadline focused on a much smaller pool of applications waiting longer than 30 days.

Department leaders had attributed backlogs late last year to increased responsibilities for county case workers as an upgraded computer system used by county offices also began determining eligibility for Medicaid based on new income thresholds.

In the final days before the March 31 deadline approached, state officials scrambled to work when Guilford County’s social service office told them it had thousands of additional applications to review.

“I offer a sincere thank you to the state and county staff for their outstanding work and dedication, and I look forward to continuing our joint efforts to sustain timely processing of food stamp cases,” Wos said.