More to issue than closed stores
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for many of the country’s pregnant women with low-incomes for those that breastfeed as well as those that do not. The program also provides food assistance to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.
WIC is popular with Congress because it is a very cost-effective federal food program. It actually requires participants to attend educational classes on nutrition and learn about healthy foods that have been shown to promote healthy pregnancies and healthy children. It only allows “WIC-approved” healthy food items to be purchased, and it uses a peer-program that groups vendors into categories that, for the most part, have generally kept food costs down — at least until recently when it was discovered that the system was being abused.
Studies have shown that WIC does in fact work at much less cost and with far greater efficiency than its better-known cousin, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program. Even so, it is not without its problems, particularly in rural areas such as Inyo and Mono counties.
When Carroll’s Market in Big Pine (see last week’s story, “WIC no longer works in Big Pine”), the last remaining WIC-approved store in Inyo County outside of the City of Bishop, announced that it has decided to no longer accept WIC vouchers, it left only three WIC-approved stores within the county; all of them in the City of Bishop. As a consequence, many WIC clients in Inyo County now must drive as much as 120 to 150 miles to a WIC-approved grocery market.
According to Laurie True, the Executive Director of the advocacy group California WIC Association, the problems with the program have not been with outright fraud, but with “vendors and wholesalers taking existing regulations and then driving a truck through them.” She went on to say that, while what some vendors and wholesale distributors were doing was “not illegal,” it was clearly unethical and by working the system they caused the price of WIC commodities to go through the roof.
Several years ago WIC became inundated with stores that wanted to be authorized to participate in the program. Over six months there were over 1,000 new vendors driving peer-group prices through the roof. Peer group pricing changes are made every two weeks based on the peer-group averages. The greater the average, the higher the reimbursement rate.
During the state’s review, examples showed some stores were charging WIC customers as much as five times more money for basic food items. To get WIC clients to shop in their stores some vendors began enticing moms with prizes ranging from free lottery tickets to household appliances. Wholesalers were encouraging small markets to take WIC packaged foods; and then spreading the gospel: We can give you the foods and a cash register so you can corner this particular market group.
Two years ago in response to the rising costs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a moratorium on new WIC-approved stores and ordered the state’s Department of Public Health, which runs the WIC program in California to evaluate the program and restrain the escalating costs from abuse. That moratorium is still in place, although new rules and regulations are being implemented to address the problem in 2014 and hopefully new stores can once again be approved.
True said the California WIC Association, also known as CalWIC, alerted the feds when they first noticed the problem and when nothing appeared to be happening, they demanded that the USDA make the state fix the problem even if it meant shutting down the system with the moratorium.
“Fortunately they [the state] are now fixing it, revamping the peer-group pricing system, vendor and wholesaler criteria, and hired more staff to go after more outrageous offenders that were using fraudulent methods and kicking out some stores.”
The WIC program is still issuing paper checks, which are cumbersome, but there are plans to switch over to electronic banking cards that should make reimbursement to WIC stores less challenging.
With the new rules and regulations on the very near horizon, the California WIC program hopes to find the winning formula to remove the moratorium on new WIC stores and greatly reduce fraud.
California is not the only state with WIC Program problems. The most recently reported fraud just last month came from New York. It involved 16 store owners who were charged with allegedly purchasing customers’ WIC vouchers and giving the recipient a percentage of the cash value while they pocketed on average a 20 percent cut of the money? money which was then reimbursed by the government.
More information on WIC can be found at the state’s website www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/wicworks ? or at the California WIC Association website www.calwic.org.