BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana's public health office has done a poor job of monitoring a federal nutrition program for poor women and children, allowing stores to sell expired food and overcharge for groceries, according to an audit released Monday. Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera's office reviewed the Office of Public Health's administration of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, called WIC.
The audit said OPH didn't verify grocery prices charged through the program, overpaid for food, didn't follow federal regulations governing the program and often didn't sanction vendors for unsanitary conditions in stores or expired products on shelves.
The Department of Health and Hospitals, which oversees OPH, requested the review of the program, which cost $126 million in the 2011-2012 budget year and provided services to 145,000 women and children in the state. In response to the findings, the health department announced Monday it is revamping its WIC oversight and changing procedures for monitoring vendors and their prices.
The department said it will create a monitoring database and a guidance manual for stores that participate in the program and WIC employees. "We requested this audit to guide us in improving the WIC program for those who rely on its critical services, while also protecting taxpayer dollars and ensuring that any bad vendors are no longer allowed to participate in the program," DHH Secretary Kathy Kliebert said in a statement.
The WIC program offers food, nutrition education, health screening and referrals to other available social services for pregnant women, women who have recently given birth and children up to their fifth birthday.
Purpera's office said the state may have been overcharged as much a $655,000 during the budget year because the public health office didn't assign many of the stores to the right WIC category, which limits the prices they can charge for individual items. The audit said OPH also didn't verify that stores were charging the prices they reported. For example, auditors found that one store was charging the program $21.99 for infant formula, when the allowed amount was capped at $14.89.
The public health office didn't regularly sanction stores for not following program rules. When the auditor's office went with OPH staff on four monitoring visits, the office didn't take any action after finding cheese that had expired four years earlier and infant food that was nine months past its expiration date.
Auditors found vendors that had repeat violations but received only warning letters. "These issues occurred because the OPH state office does not sufficiently oversee and track the results of its routine vendor monitoring," the audit said.
The health department agreed with all of the auditor's recommendations and said that within a few months, inspections will be done by the same workers who inspect restaurants and other retail food operations in Louisiana. DHH pledged new monitoring techniques and oversight. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federal WIC program, must approve the state's guidance manual and tracking database before they can be used.