Local WIC office hopes for return to normalcy
By SCOTT AUST
For Danielle Ast, southwest Kansas WIC director, Congress' vote Wednesday night to end the partial federal government shutdown means her program can get back to normal.
"Right now, we're just able to print checks for the month of October," Ast said Wednesday afternoon, prior to Congress' vote.
Last week, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment directed local WIC offices to limit the issuance of WIC checks to only those checks dated October 2013 and to withhold checks dated November and December until further notice.
KDHE is able to fund WIC purchases made with October checks, but the agency couldn't guarantee its backing of grocery purchases made with checks dated in November and December because it couldn't predict the end of the federal government shutdown.
"I would assume as soon as this is resolved we will go back to normal. It's an assumption. It depends on (how much) longer this goes," Ast said.
WIC checks are issued to participants to buy certain groceries at grocery stores. A client selects qualifying food items and presents the check to the cashier. The amount is filled in, and the client signs the check, and the grocer sends it to KDHE for payment.
Checks are printed every day for clients and normally, a client can get three months' worth of checks. Due to the shutdown and the KDHE reaction to it, the status of checks with start dates in November and December were uncertain and will remain so until further notice.
"That's the difference. Normally, we'd be printing checks that started 10/16, 11/16 and 12/16. But right now, we're just printing checks in October," Ast said. "Two weeks ago, we were printing checks that had October, November, December start dates. And those checks out there, if this doesn't resolve, we don't know what that means for those checks."
Even with the shutdown presumably resolved and things expected to get back to normal, clients will have the hassle of coming back in November and December.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC) is a federally-funded program administered in Kansas by KDHE through contracts with county health departments. Currently, all Kansas WIC clinics are fully operational and serving clients.
According to KDHE, printed on each WIC check is a label that reads: "Do not use before this date." WIC checks are valid for 30 days from that date. All checks with a "Do not use before this date" in October or September may be redeemed by participants, and grocery stores will be reimbursed for purchases made with those checks.
"Limiting the issuance of WIC checks is the appropriate response at this time," said Dave Thomason, Kansas WIC director. "We are hopeful that the shutdown will be resolved before it impacts WIC past the month of October, but we must be fiscally responsible during this time of uncertainty. KDHE understands the inconvenience of our current situation, and we appreciate WIC staff in their work to ensure that WIC participants receive proper nutrition education and assistance during this time."
WIC provides nutrition education, breastfeeding support and supplemental, nutritious foods to low-income families. The Kansas WIC program serves approximately 70,000 participants every month, including pregnant women, breastfeeding women through the first year of their infant's life, women who have had a baby within the past six months, infants younger than 1, and children from age 1 to 5.
Other than the WIC check uncertainty, Ast said the local WIC department is operating normally.
"We're still seeing clients, still doing nutrition education, breast feeding education, making our normal referrals. We're just also doing the education piece, telling people they will have to come back in November instead of in January," she said.
Based at the Finney County Health Department, the Southwest Kansas WIC program serves about 2,500 participants in Finney, Haskell, Hamilton, Kearny and Stanton counties. The vast majority, 2,265 as of Oct. 1, come from Finney County.