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Shutdown Jeopardizes N.H. Services

Concord — Despite the government shutdown, the federally funded safety net for low-income New Hampshire residents appears intact for now.

But if the shutdown continues into late October or beyond, state officials and local agencies are worried they’ll begin to run out of money for programs that help supply poor people with food, fuel and child care.

“It’s a really difficult situation,” said Mary Ann Cooney, associate commissioner at the state Department of Health and Human Services. “It really is, because we know this will directly affect our clients.”

The situation varies from one program to another. Some services, like food stamps, are fully funded through the end of October. None of New Hampshire’s Head Start sites are in danger of closing before the end of the year. Other programs may run short in a matter of weeks.

“We are taking this pretty much a day or a week at a time,” Cooney said, “and we will notify people if we get to a point where we have to temporarily — we hope temporarily — shut down the programs.”

Congress has deadlocked over funding the federal government as House Republicans seek to delay the implementation of President Obama’s 2010 health care reform law. With no budget or continuing resolution in place, the government partially shut down as of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

It wasn’t clear Thursday when an agreement to resolve the standoff would emerge. The longest shutdown on record lasted 21 days, in December 1995 and January 1996, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Major entitlement programs – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – are unaffected for now. But the federal government is expected to reach its borrowing limit later this month, and without a deal to raise the debt ceiling, “handling all payments for important and popular programs (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Defense, military active duty pay) will quickly become impossible,” according to a recent analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

With winter coming, the Executive Council on Wednesday approved contracts to provide an estimated $31.6 million in heating aid to low-income New Hampshire residents. But the Fuel Assistance Program relies entirely on the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program for funding.

Checks don’t go out to recipients until December, “so we have some time before the actual fuel assistance dollars start to flow,” said Meredith Hatfield, director of the Office of Energy and Planning. “Our hope is that ... by Dec. 1, those funds will be available.”

Some Head Start programs in other states have already closed due to the shutdown; their fiscal years began Oct. 1, so funding ran out at the end of September. But none are in New Hampshire, where five Community Action Programs operate 41 Head Start sites serving more than 1,600 children and their families.

Those programs are on different schedules, but none end their fiscal year before Dec. 31, said Debra Nelson, administrator of the Head Start State Collaboration Office. That means none are in danger of closing unless the shutdown lasts into January.

“Head Start in New Hampshire dodged a bullet this time around,” she said.

For other programs, while funding has been cut off, there’s enough money on hand to continue providing services. State officials have said they’re still trying to figure out if and when they would be forced to begin scaling back or suspending programs – planning made more difficult by the fact that hundreds of thousands of federal workers have been furloughed.

Funding is in place for food stamps through Oct. 31. But after that date, while some federal funds would be available for benefits, the state may not get money to cover the program’s administrative costs, Cooney said.

“They intend to continue providing (benefits) through contingency money, but we won’t be able to get those benefits to people,” she said.

Cooney said the Department of Health and Human Services is exploring its options, including using state general funds to keep the program going, “but we have not made that determination yet.” And, she said, it would mean taking money from other programs “that are already rather lean.”

The federal authorization for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a cash-assistance program, expired Monday.

As for the program that provides food assistance to low-income women and children under 5 – the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, called WIC – Cooney said the state has enough money to continue it “for a period of time,” but she wasn’t sure how long.

“It could be a matter of not even more than a month,” she said.

If the shutdown continues “through late October, federal WIC funding may not be sufficient to cover benefits,” wrote Audrey Rowe, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, in a shutdown-planning memo.

Rowe also wrote in her memo that various food programs for poor children, including subsidized school lunches, “will continue operations into October,” and once the federal government reopens, “we expect additional resources will be available to reimburse October performance.”

Programs that provide commodity food to individuals through food banks, shelters and pantries may face more difficulty in the short term.

Ralph Littlefield, executive director of the Community Action Program Belknap-Merrimack Counties, said he expected the actual food would be available through December for the Emergency Food Assistance Program. But, he said, there won’t be federal funding to cover transportation and other costs.

Some money from fiscal 2013 may be left over, and other funding sources could help for a while, he said.

“But somewhere along the line, you run out of money and you end the service,” Littlefield said.