After fostering controversy in the spring by taking the WIC program from a North Philadelphia agency that ran it for decades and awarding it to Temple University, the state has now ignited a firestorm by significantly cutting a planned period of transition to ease the changeover.
Advocates and legislators say they can’t understand why a 12-month transition was cut to around three months last week.
They fear Temple might not be ready to take on the city’s more than 45,000 WIC clients without ever having run a WIC program before. As a result, advocates say, low-income women and children may bear the brunt of a speeded-up process by becoming confused about who’s in charge of their benefits and begin dropping off the WIC rolls, which have already been declining.
Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs WIC, uses enrollment numbers to determine Pennsylvania’s funding allotment, the state would then lose money to help those who need it most, advocates say.
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.
“I’m shocked they’re shortening the transition period,” said Geraldine Henchy, a national WIC expert and director of nutrition policy for the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) in Washington, the largest anti-hunger lobby in America. “How will the changeover get done if the timeline isn’t what everyone was originally expecting?
“WIC will lose people. I know of no other situation like this in the country. It makes no sense.”
Asked about the transition, a spokesperson for Temple’s College of Health, which is slated to run WIC, said Wednesday: “It is still the plan to have a transition period. What is being negotiated among ... [the state], Temple and the current contractor, are the specifics of the transition. That is really all we are able to say at this point.”
Contacted separately, both the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the office of Gov. Tom Wolf jointly responded with a single email from a Wolf administration spokesperson late Wednesday afternoon.
The spokesperson wrote that the state was following USDA guidelines “to consider a competitive procurement [bidding] process,” which resulted in Temple being awarded the WIC program.
But in an email responding to Inquirer questions last month, a USDA spokesperson wrote: “There is no federal requirement that WIC state agencies competitively bid for local agencies. Pennsylvania state policy requires competition.”
Regarding the compression of transition time from a year to three months, the spokesperson wrote that “after consultation with existing and new vendors ... , it was determined a 90-day extension was appropriate to ensure the new vendors are ready to start providing services without disruption to recipients starting in January 2022.”
Advocates said some agencies learned about the transition change only last week without discussion from the state.
The spokesperson added: “The Wolf Administration’s primary concern is serving women, babies, and children in the WIC program without disruption. We are confident that the 90-day transition period provides enough time for this transition without a lapse in service.”
The original April announcement of a reconfiguration of agencies by the Bureau of Women, Infants and Children within the Pennsylvania Department of Health affects WIC offices throughout the state along with the Philadelphia office, North Inc., which has been providing WIC benefits for 42 years. North Inc. and other agencies are appealing the reconfiguration.
Just as few in the WIC world appear to understand why the bureau is moving WIC from North Inc. to Temple, it’s also unclear why the bureau is stripping the WIC program from the Allegheny County Department of Health and giving it to Blueprints, a small agency in rural Washington County. The bureau also reduced the transition time between the Western Pennsylvania agencies from nine months to three, advocates said. Officials at Blueprints did not return calls requesting comment.
The county has a WIC caseload of around 12,000 people, most of them in Pittsburgh, said Robert Ferguson, chief policy officer of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation in that city, a nonprofit that supports health and education research for low-income people.
“Blueprints doesn’t have experience in urban centers, which have different needs,” Ferguson added. “Without enough of a transition, there may not be enough time to build up community partnerships.”
Those who work in WIC are puzzled and alarmed by the state’s choice to quickly make momentous changes during a pandemic when, they say, a slower pace is the more prudent course.
“There’s no reason to move this quickly,” Henchy said. “The state’s not saying any particular agency is doing a bad job and we have to move fast as a result.”
Beyond that, because of the bureau’s choices, Pennsylvania will “no longer have a WIC agency that’s a minority-run nonprofit,” according to Linda Kilby, director of North Inc. since 1986. Along with North Inc., “the state’s only other minority-run WIC nonprofits — Erie County and Shenango Valley Urban League Inc. — also lost their programs,” Kilby said.
The bureau has already been criticized for potentially endangering clients by choosing a system that issues benefits on EBT (electronics benefit transfer) cards that cannot be reloaded virtually, as in most other states. Women have been forced to travel during the pandemic with small children in tow to WIC offices to renew benefits.
A transition without explanation
On June 8, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health wrote an email to The Inquirer saying that the grant to run Temple’s WIC program would “commence Oct. 1, 2022, with necessary transition activities beginning within the preceding year in order to assure uninterrupted WIC services for WIC participants.”
And as of Wednesday afternoon, the Department of Health had on its website a chart indicating that current providers — including North Inc. and Allegheny County’s Health Department — will be in place until Sept. 30, 2022, and that new providers don’t take over until Oct. 1, 2022.
But that all had apparently changed on June 28, when agencies received letters saying, without explanation, the transition periods had been cut. North Inc. was told its term of service ends on Dec. 31, 2021, according to correspondence obtained by The Inquirer.
“This is really egregious,” said Michael Coates, chairman of the board of North Inc. “They chose to light the fuse during the pandemic. You would think this would give pause to people of conscience.”
To answer concerns, the Wolf administration spokesperson wrote, “staff from DOH and the governor’s office arranged meetings in April and May with several members of the General Assembly in response to their letters on this topic, including Senator [Judy] Schwank [D., Berks] and the PA Legislative Black Caucus, within a week of receiving letters on this topic.”
But in an interview Wednesday, Schwank, cochair of the legislature’s Women’s Health Caucus, said she’d reached out to the state Health Department and is awaiting an answer on the agency reconfigurations and the transition changes, which, she said, “came out of the blue.”
Schwank added: “We’re all scratching our heads. I’m baffled, and it’s concerning we’re not getting any answers.”
Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said that curtailing transition times is problematic.
“It’s outrageous to shift to such an aggressive time frame during a pandemic when WIC agencies across the state are just getting back to baby steps in trying to run normal operations,” she said. “This is just crazy.”
Henchy and other WIC professionals wondered whether the bureau is quickening the pace of transition to forestall the appeals process being used by organizations such as North Inc. to retain their standing as WIC agencies.
Henchy said: “If the state can put off the agencies that are appealing long enough, the changes become faits accomplis as new agencies take over.”