North Carolina only state to cut off WIC vouchers, other states using contingency funds

By: - October 10, 2013 2:09 pm

UPDATE (10/10/2013 5 p.m.): U.S. Rep David Price’s office confirmed with the USDA that enough contingency funds were sent to DHHS to continue the program. Price plans on sending McCrory a letter asking why, given that, NC was the only state to cease issuing vouchers.

North Carolina is the first, and only, state in the nation to stop issuing vouchers for formula and nutritional food for at-risk newborns, young children and expectant mothers as part of the federal government shutdown.

The aberration was noted this week in publications like Governing, a national public policy magazine, which pointed out $125 million from a USDA emergency contingency plan kept the program up and running in the 49 other states.

Now, questions are being raised about why North Carolina stopped issuing vouchers on Tuesday, instead of furloughing employees or finding other sources of funding to keep vouchers for formula and food going to the young children and their mothers that depend on the program.

“The first thing you do is furlough employees rather than cutting out essential things like food to babies,” said Dr. William Pilkington, the head of Cabarrus Health Alliance, the Piedmont county’s public health agency. “I don’t understand morally or otherwise how the governor made the decision to withdraw food from babies.”

Calls for comment from McCrory’s office and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services were not immediately returned Thursday. This post will be updated with their responses when we hear back.

Reached late Thursday afternoon, the Rev. Douglas Greenaway of the National WIC Association said he didn’t know why North Carolina was having so many more issues than other states. He did say that USDA has reached out to the state trying to get the program back running.

“I know that USDA and North Carolina have been in conversations with each other,” Greenaway said. “USDA has made an offer of assistance with some of the available contingency funds that are left.”

Greenaway said he didn’t know whether or not North Carolina officials were resistant to the idea of accepting the funds or not, or if there was a pre-existing cash flow problem that led to an early shutdown.

“I would just hope that the conversation with USDA are fruitful and produce positive resolutions for mothers and infants,” he said.

Pilkington said his office turned away 35 to 40 women in the last two days, pointing them to area food banks as a possible way to get needed formula. For many low-income families, the high cost of formula, (about $15 for a can of infant formula that makes 28 bottles) is a barrier.

Food banks in the state have already been stretched thin because of problems with the state’s food stamps delivery system that left many waiting for months for the emergency food benefits.

On Tuesday, in the midst of a day-long legislative oversight committee in which lawmakers grilled Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos about issues in her agency, Wos released a statement about the stop in WIC benefits.

“Some of our most vulnerable citizens, pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants and young children, will be affected by the interruption of WIC services due to the federal shutdown,” Wos said, in a written statement.

The $205 million program served approximately 264,000 women, infants and children in September, and DHHS estimated the halt in vouchers will affect 20 percent of its eligible clients this month. WIC staff are still working to offer nutritional advice and refer clients to food banks for help and already-issued vouchers can be used through the end of the month.

Most other states appear to be using a combination of the USDA contingency funding or are using other state monies to cover the cost of the program during the federal government shutdown, which is in its 10th day.

In neighboring South Carolina, the WIC program is continuing to run through the end of the month with state officials using other funding to stop the gap in funding until federal money flows through to the program again.

Utah’s WIC program directors initially announced they’d be ceasing operations immediately on Oct.1, but quickly restarted the program  after it received a portion of the $125 million that the USDA provided to state’s in contingency questions.

It’s not clear whether North Carolina received a portion of that emergency funding or not. Calls to DHHS for clarification were not immediately returned.

North Carolina does have $650 million in its rainy day fund, but would need legislative approval in order to be accessed.

Food banks around the state are looking for donations of formula, non-perishable food and money. The N.C. Association of Feeding America Food Banks has an interactive map here with links to all the food banks around the state. All are looking for formula or financial donations. To donate to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, which serves an area from Durham to Wilmington, click here for more information.

This post has changed from the original to include comments from the head of the National WIC Association.

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Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.