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Politics & Government

Pennsylvania officials demanded $528,821.12 from Allegheny County during WIC dispute

Big Snowstorm Pennsylvania grocery store food shopping
Matt Slocum
/
AP
The WIC program aims to help pregnant women and young children with nutrition and breastfeeding support

At the height of a recent dispute regarding which entity should run a nutrition program for low-income women and children, Pennsylvania officials attempted to charge the Allegheny County Health Department more than a half-million dollars after alleging the county was in breach of a grant agreement, according to documents obtained by WESA through a Right to Know request.

The state has since backed down and told county health officials the agency doesn’t have to pay after all — at least for now. But the documents, among hundreds of pages of program information, emails, letters, and appeal filings detailing communication between state and local officials, shed new light on how heated the dispute became. The documents were obtained from the state and county under the Right to Know law.

The disagreement centered around which local provider should run Allegheny County’s WIC, or Women, Infants and Children program, which provides nutrition and breastfeeding support to low-income mothers and young children.

The county health department has been the local operator of the federally funded program for more than four decades. It has 11 local WIC offices, in places such as downtown Pittsburgh, McKees Rocks, Clairton, Mt. Oliver and Wilkinsburg. But earlier this year, state health officials awarded the WIC contract to a nonprofit organization based in Washington County, with no Allegheny County locations.

A number of other local longtime WIC providers across the state also lost contracts earlier this year. That led to pushback from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as well as advocacy organizations, who questioned the state’s bidding process. State legislators in particular questioned why a number of programs were deemed ‘unresponsive’ and their bids weren’t scored; a score of 70% or higher was needed for an applicant to be considered 'responsive' and considered for an award.

Some advocates said they were concerned quick transitions could leave needy families without services or not knowing where to go. State health officials had pledged the transition would be smooth and no families would be left without services. Allegheny County officials were appealing the state’s move to change providers; that appeal was later withdrawn after the state said the county could continue to provide WIC services locally.

Why the penalty?

Among the issues cited by the state when it demanded payment from the county in an August letter: Allegheny County officials leaving a transition planning meeting “before the conclusion of the meeting” and allegedly being generally being uncooperative in assisting with the transition to the new provider.

The state also ordered Allegheny County officials to “cease providing statements to WIC participants, local agency staff and other third parties that conflict with the state agency messaging on the transition…” The letter from the state is dated Aug. 11, two days after a WESA story about the outcry from advocates and legislators about the change in WIC providers and the potentially swift timeline for a transition. The story also quoted a county health department official as saying the agency wanted to continue running the WIC program locally.

The state also said that because the county health department used funding from a federal infrastructure grant “to make tenant improvements to, and purchase furnishings and supplies for its WIC clinics,” it might have to return some of those funds — up to $528,821.12.

State officials said the county would owe the funds if the state "determines at the conclusion of [the Allegheny County Health Department’s] grant that there remains an unused benefit to the WIC Program of the funding provided to ACHD under the Infrastructure Grant. Consistent with federal grant principles, funding must be used for the benefit of the program and funding not so used is due back… The Department is awaiting instruction from [the] United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on the procedure in which ACHD must repay the benefit owing to the WIC Program” state officials wrote.

The state suggested that if the county were to turn over its WIC clinics to the new local WIC operator, Allegheny County wouldn’t need to repay the funds.

“Should ACHD intend to ultimately turn over its current clinics…to the state agency, then ACHD should confirm its intention to do so in writing as soon as possible, but in any event, no later than 5 calendar days from the date of this letter. Otherwise, ACHD remains potentially liable for future repayment, as described above, should [the new WIC operator] obtain separate clinic leases, therefore, eliminating the need to use any ACHD clinic,” state officials wrote.

In a filing as part of its appeal to the state, county officials had said they couldn’t simply hand over their existing WIC clinics.

The county “will be required to continue paying rent on these facilities, even if is no longer administering the WIC program,” attorneys for the county wrote in an August appeal filing. “[The county health department] also cannot avoid these rent payments by simply transferring the leases to the new WIC local agency. ACHD uses many of these facilities for multiple purposes and programs. If ACHD will no longer be the local agency for the WIC program in Allegheny County, ACHD needs time to evaluate whether or not to use these locations to provide other public health services from within its portfolio. And if ACHD's appeal is successful, ACHD will need to walk back any changes it made to its facilities-again, at significant expense.”

State officials reverse course

Though they did not explain why, state officials later threw out the contested bids and reversed course, saying the county’s Health Department can continue to run WIC locally, at least for now. State health officials said at the time the agency “is committed to providing an equitable, transparent and accurate competitive application process.”

State officials followed up in an Aug. 24 letter, saying because the bidding process had been scrapped, it wouldn’t pursue the matter of the half-million dollars for now.

“Therefore, the Department is no longer seeking ACHD's intentions as to its WIC clinics at this time,” state officials wrote.

State officials said this week there “is no imminent WIC action toward ACHD regarding the $528,821.12” and said they are awaiting guidance from federal officials “as applied to any unused benefit owed to the WIC Program,” said Barry Ciccocioppo, a spokesman for the state Department of Health.

County health department officials said this week they are focused on the program’s future.

“The Health Department has managed the WIC Program continuously since 1974, providing health and nutrition services to tens of thousands of people in low-income, at-risk populations,” department Director Dr. Debra Bogen said in a written statement. “We are extremely pleased to continue that tradition of public service. I care deeply about this program — it has been my personal mission to ensure that we deliver the best services to as many women, infants and children as possible. Part of that mission includes plans to expand services and improve our reach by opening new WIC offices in places where they are needed most, including hospitals with maternity units.”