The state of Pennsylvania will not compel WIC agencies to bid competitively for the chance to continue running their own programs, allowing the status quo to hold for the foreseeable future, according to state officials.

In announcing that decision earlier this month, state officials are also signaling they will be open to a more collegial, transparent working relationship with WIC agencies after a roiling few years of animosity and confusion.

“It’s a 180-degree turnaround,” said State Sen. Judy Schwank (D., Berks) in an interview Thursday. “It’s giving the agencies some breathing room.” On Dec. 10, Schwank, cochair of the legislature’s Women’s Health Caucus, introduced a bipartisan bill to establish a WIC advisory board that would offer feedback and counsel to state officials. The bill will soon be taken up by the Senate appropriations committee, Schwank said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said the state and WIC agencies “are aligned in their efforts to increase [WIC] participation. ...” The spokesperson added, “We hope to create an environment where local agencies can hear and share best practices and inspire innovative ways to serve the WIC clients, such as increased clinic hours, community outreach techniques, and other creative ways to increase participation.”

WIC is shorthand for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. It provides nutrition services, breastfeeding support, health care, and healthy foods to participants. WIC is overseen by the Bureau of Women, Infants and Children within the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program serves pregnant women, new mothers, and infants and children under age 5.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania returns WIC program to North Inc. after awarding it to Temple University

The announced changes are welcome news for advocates and WIC agency officials who have endured a whipsawing series of events throughout the last year that have fostered confusion and anger.

“These changes have been received with great fanfare,” said Ann Torregrossa, executive director of the Pennsylvania Health Funders Collaborative, a group of 40 foundations headquartered in Swarthmore. “It’s exciting.”

Surprise

Beginning in the summer of 2020, the bureau surprised everyone involved in WIC by ordering all 23 Pennsylvania WIC agencies to bid competitively for the chance to continue running their own programs, a departure from standard practice.

By April 2021, the bureau had stripped the Philadelphia WIC program from North Inc., a North Philadelphia organization that ran it for 42 years, and served 45,000 people. The bureau awarded the contract to Temple University, which had no experience with WIC. The bureau made similar moves in other counties, in one case placing a small, rural WIC agency in charge of clients in Pittsburgh.

In July, the bureau ignited a new firestorm of criticism by inexplicably cutting a planned 12-month period of transition from North Inc. to Temple to just three months.

The process had become so perplexing that Geraldine Henchy, a national expert on WIC with the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) in Washington, D.C., declared that Pennsylvania’s WIC office had been acting “erratically” and had become “an unreliable partner” to the county agencies it was charged with administering, as well as to the clients who rely on WIC.

Then, in early September, the bureau reversed itself and canceled the changeover to Temple, returning the Philadelphia WIC program to North Inc.

By mid-September, the Wolf administration had removed the director of Pennsylvania’s WIC program, Will Cramer, who was appointed by former Gov. Tom Corbett, and had run the bureau since 2014. A replacement is expected to be hired by early 2022, a spokesperson said.

Along with Cramer, the state plans to replace Alison Beam, who’ll resign as the Department of Health’s acting secretary at the end of the year.

WIC professionals laid much of the blame for the turmoil in the program at Cramer’s feet. They found fault both with his decisions, as well as with a perceived aloofness that they say had hindered open communication and deprived them of vital data needed to help women and children during the pandemic.

» READ MORE: Head of PA food agency for low-income women and children out after agency difficulties

But even after saying Cramer would go, state officials indicated in late September that yet another effort to reconfigure the program with a new round of bidding would soon be attempted, making it unclear whether North Inc., the largest WIC provider in Pennsylvania, would ultimately continue to serve its clients.

‘We survived’

The announcement from earlier this month that no more bidding is expected seemed to ease some of the worries of WIC agencies, still preoccupied with serving clients during the pandemic.

“Thank you, Lord, we have survived this,” said Linda Kilby, who runs North Inc. “But it will still take us a while to recover.”

While she’s pleased the bidding process has been rescinded, Kilby said the back-and-forth of the previous months is creating new headaches, not the least of which is trying to educate the community that a program that had been shifted to Temple is back at North Inc. Kilby said she also has to hire people to compensate for those who left the agency during the churn.

“We lost a program, and now it’s time to reboot the computer,” she said.

» READ MORE: Hungry as a child, this Philadelphia woman now uses her own house as a food pantry

An issue still facing North Inc., as well as other WIC agencies throughout Pennsylvania, is the state’s antiquated benefits system. The bureau chose a system that issues benefits on EBT (electronics benefit transfer) cards that cannot be reloaded virtually. Women have been forced to travel during the time of COVID-19 with small children in tow to WIC offices to renew benefits, which may have caused them to stop accessing WIC altogether, research suggests.

Nationally, there are just nine states — Pennsylvania included — that require WIC-eligible families to reload benefits in person. During the pandemic, those states experienced a 9.3% decline in participation, compared with states that allowed reloading remotely, according to Aditi Vasan, a pediatrician and health services researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania.

WIC participation in Pennsylvania declined nearly 9% during one year of the pandemic, from February 2020 to February 2021, a pattern repeated in other states that require in-person EBT-card reloading, according to FRAC. That’s a drop from 190,476 people to 173,871, a loss of nearly 17,000 clients. Meanwhile, New Jersey, which uses the more modern remote reloading system, saw an increase of 6.5% in WIC participation to nearly 141,000.

Schwank’s bill addresses the issue, calling for a switch to a system of smart card that allows remote loading and increased capacity for additional benefits.

Torregrossa suggested that the state use federal American Rescue Plan Act money to pay for remote loading.

“We’re hopeful the state will take this seriously,” she said.