Feds warn Nevada about tardy food stamp reporting

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CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Federal officials warned the state of Nevada on Wednesday that it may lose administrative funds needed to run the food-stamp program unless it improves on tardy reporting of applications for the assistance.

The regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service in San Francisco said in a letter to Nevada Department of Health and Human Services Director Romaine Gilliland that Nevada has one of the worst reporting rates in the country.

"The state's sustained poor timeliness rate has created hardships for thousands of low-income households across the state and must be addressed," regional administrator Jesus Mendoza Jr. wrote.

"This letter serves as advance notification that DHHS may soon be subject to the suspension or disallowance of administrative funds" if certain benchmarks are not met, he said.

Mendoza didn't say how much money might be at stake or how long individual Nevadans' applications have been delayed.

Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., said late Wednesday that the USDA warning is "deeply troubling." He urged state officials to "act as quickly as possible to fix these unacceptable delays" in the benefits administered through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

"Thousands of Nevadans rely on SNAP support to keep their heads above water. Those who are struggling to find work and feed their families cannot afford to wait this long to receive benefits," he said in a statement

Nevada Department of Health and Human Services officials said Wednesday that they were working with the federal agency and expect to meet all compliance deadlines so as not to face the possibility of loss of administrative funds. They said they've been forced to deal with more than a doubling of the number of Nevadans who receive food stamps and other assistance under SNAP over the past five years — from 175,000 in 2009 to more than 390,000 currently.

Although USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) expects 100 percent compliance with the application processing, it accepts a 95 percent rate, Mendoza said. He noted that Nevada made improvement with a timeliness rate of nearly 89 percent in the most recent six-month reporting period that ended in March. But he said it's been well below 95 percent the past four years — 87 percent in fiscal year 2009, 81 percent in 2010 and 2011 and 82 percent in 2012.

Mendoza said he expects the state to respond with a detailed corrective action plan within 30 days that among other things should analyze the root cause of the delays, identify specific strategies to improve and identify who will be responsible for the actions and how they will be monitored.

The new benchmarks call for an 85 percent timeliness rate by the end of March 2015 and a 95 percent rate by the end of September 2015.

If Nevada fails to meet those standards, the state will be issued a "formal warning letter," and it would have another 30 days to provide additional evidence of compliance or a revised correction plan.

"If DHHS' response is inadequate, FNS can begin suspension of federal funding for state administrative expenses." Mendoza said.

Gilliland said in a statement that the department has been working closely with FNS officials to develop new strategies to improve timeliness and "many of the new processes are already gaining traction."

Currently fewer than 750 applications have been pending for more than 30 days, and state officials are "moving quickly to resolve each and every case," Nevada DHHS said in a statement.

Steve Fisher, administrator of DHSS' Division of Welfare and Support Services, said they are confident "the corrective action plan will provide adequate evidence of compliance with the required timeframe."

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