Audit identifies barriers to WIC benefits

  • State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, state Auditor Suzanne Bump, State Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, Miguel Perez, community coordinator of the Tapestry WIC Family Nutrition Office and Wendy Kane, administrative benefits advocate at Community Legal Aid discuss the recent WIC audit at a roundtable in Holyoke on Friday, Sept. 13, 2019.  STAFF PHOTO/MICHAEL CONNORS

Staff Writer
Saturday, September 14, 2019

HOLYOKE — Michael Cook, a single father of one son, saw firsthand the struggles people go through to access benefits from the state’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children (WIC).

Cook, of Springfield, used WIC himself to help support his newborn child. He said he was fortunate to be “close enough” to the nearest WIC office, saving enough money to ride the bus back and forth when he needed to. But others, he said, weren’t as lucky.

“You have no money — that’s why you’re trying to get WIC,” he said. “You don’t have money for the bus.”

His child is now 9 years old and no longer eligible for WIC benefits, but there are others in the state who still battle such barriers on a regular basis. A recent report released this week by state Auditor Suzanne Bump shows that families in the state face challenges such as transportation, language, immigration issues and a lack of outreach efforts to obtaining WIC assistance.

WIC is a nutrition program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provides food, nutrition education, health care referrals, breastfeeding support and other services free of charge to low-income families in the state. The program helped 108,593 families in the state last year, provided out of 120 locations.

Bump’s audit calls on the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services and state Department of Public Health, which is tasked with administering WIC, to address the barriers her office found.

At a roundtable discussion Friday afternoon at the Western Massachusetts Training Consortium in Holyoke, Bump, along with Cook, state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, state Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, and other community health leaders discussed the findings of Bump’s report.

“We’ve heard universally that it’s a great program,” Bump said of WIC after the meeting. “If you can gain physical and linguistic access to it.”

Through interviews of leaders at a sample of WIC’s 120 provider locations, the audit found a lack of public transportation options for program participants. In Western Massachusetts specifically, the audit found there are generally longer wait times and more frequent bus changes.

Even further, the audit found that in the western part of the state, specifically near the hilltowns, there is a significantly greater distance to the nearest WIC office — with much of the area more than 20 miles away from a WIC location. In contrast, in Greater Boston, most of the area is within five miles of the nearest office.

Lesser pointed to the Community Survival Center in the Indian Orchard neighborhood in Springfield as an example of the issues many have with transportation in the area.

“It really is hard to get to,” he said. “It’s a remote area.”

Some WIC offices have requested mobile service centers in hospitals and women’s homeless shelters to address this, the report says.

Another main finding of the audit was that the DPH doesn’t ensure that information regarding the program is available to participants in their native languages.

According to the audit, every time benefits are issued or updated, a personalized shopper’s list for the participant is created — however, only in English.

At the roundtable, the language barrier issue was discussed in the context of immigrant families that might have a relative living with them, changing their household size. If there’s no one at the nearest WIC office who speaks their language, families may not be aware of how that could change their their benefits.

“Without advocacy, without somebody representing someone on this issue, the likelihood is they will be penalized, the family will be hurt, and it will all be an unintended mistake,” Wendy Kane, administrative benefits advocate with Community Legal Aid, said at the discussion.

According to the audit, the DPH acknowledged it lacked sufficient technology to translate the shopper’s lists into other languages. French and Russian are among the 10 most common languages in the state, the audit said, but neither the lists nor other information is published in either of those languages.

“DPH has utilized its resources to make materials available in the languages most commonly spoken by non-English speaking Women, Infant and Children (WIC) participants. Although Russian is one of the 10 most widely spoken languages in Massachusetts, it is not common among WIC participants,” the DPH said in response in the audit.

Bump’s report also found lackluster outreach processes, detailing how WIC’s website does not have an updated list of provider locations, while characterizing the system that notifies income-eligible residents of the programs as “not effective.” According to the report, the DPH sends out postcards to notify families of eligibility.

“You can’t send postcards to people with no addresses,” Cook said during the roundtable. He now helps others access state benefits by working with the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community. In a response in the audit, the DPH said it was conducting a pilot project evaluating the effectiveness of reaching out to MassHealth members through text.

In a separate interview, Bump said there was a mindset that needed to be changed within the WIC program to make sure every eligible person could access its resources.

“I think a higher level of awareness on the part of the agency to some of these challenges would be helpful,” she said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.