- Associated Press - Monday, January 13, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Despite more troubles in North Carolina’s health agency, legislative Republicans aren’t ready to join Democrats in asking that Gov. Pat McCrory replace its chief as legislators prepared to meet Tuesday to seek answers on a privacy breach and renewed food stamp delays.

A legislative oversight committee scheduled several hours to hear from leaders of the Department of Health and Human Services on several topics, as is common with their monthly gathering. However, this meeting comes after vocal criticism for the department mistakenly mailing 49,000 Medicaid cards for children to the wrong addresses late last month and the time it took to make the error public.

Now a backlog in food stamp applications or renewals resurfaced after DHHS leaders told the same committee in October an earlier logjam had been all but eliminated. A December letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture disclosed late last week threatens to cut off federal funds to run the state’s food stamps program unless families are served more quickly.

Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly and co-chairman of the DHHS oversight committee, said he’s bothered that he heard about the new bottleneck in applications last week through the media. While the card and food stamp matters aren’t listed on Tuesday agenda, Burr said it will get attention.

“We hope to get some answers about what’s going wrong and why we are just now hearing about” food stamp delays, Burr said Monday, adding legislators “need to be kept up to speed.”

But Burr and other Republicans aren’t joining the chorus of Democrats calling on McCrory to fire DHHS Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos. Democrats say it’s clear she’s not providing the right leadership entering the second year of the Republican governor’s term.

“They’re no longer able to blame everything on (Democratic Gov.) Mike Easley and Gov. (Beverly) Perdue,” said Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, chairman of the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus late last week. “They’ve had ample time - one year - to correct a lot of problems to get things moving.”

In separate interviews, Burr and Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union, a frequent critic of the department, defended keeping Wos on the job. They said DHHS needs stable leadership. Wos, a Greensboro physician and McCrory campaign supporter, is the third secretary since early 2012 of a department that spends $18 billion annually.

“The secretary’s job has sort of been like musical chairs and employees need … consistency,” Tucker said.

McCrory supports Wos, who is expected to attend Tuesday’s meeting and address the committee. The governor has confidence that Wos and her team “are working hard to ensure that those who need benefits, receive benefits,” McCrory spokesman Ryan Tronovitch wrote in an email.

Data provided by DHHS showed as of Dec. 31, nearly 35,000 pending case applications or renewals to receive food stamps were considered to be “untimely” by federal standards, most often a wait of more than 30 days. More than 5,800 of those had been waiting for at least 120 days, the data show. About 1.7 million people receive Food and Nutrition Services, the state’s name for food stamps.

DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry acknowledged Monday the backlog increased at the close of last year. But agency officials say the latest one is being whittled away and isn’t as great as the numbers indicated. More than 5,000 applications already are determined to be duplicates, meaning these people are receiving benefits, according to Wayne Black, director of the state Division of Social Services.

“What we’re seeing and hearing on the ground is that there is not currently a significant disruption in benefits to food stamp recipients,” Black said in a prepared statement. “However, we are not in compliance with USDA requirements for processing timeframes and are working on an aggressive plan to meet them.”

State health officials attributed these latest delays in part to increased responsibilities for county case workers as a computer system that determines qualifications for government services began determining eligibility for Medicaid based on new income thresholds. It’s mandated by the health care overhaul law.

A software upgrade to the NCFAST computer system released in mid-July caused the first round of delays, prompting higher demand at many local food banks.