Vendor Vigilance in the WIC Program

A fast-growing state licensing area is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (“WIC”). In 2011 alone, the California WIC Program trained 2,970 new vendors.
As with any new license area comes the potential for abuse. However, given the subject-matter, WIC is prone to overzealous prosecution of licensees. Thus, it is important that licensees understand their responsibilities and the consequences for violating strictly enforced regulations.
What is the WIC Program?
WIC provides nutrition and breastfeeding education, nutritious foods, and critical health and social service referrals for low and moderate-income women and children during a critical life stage. Participation is limited to the period when nutrition support is considered crucial—only pregnant, breastfeeding, and post-partum women, infants and children up to age five are eligible for the Program. WIC serves about 1.5 million Californians, including 62% of all infants born in California.
Some of the objectives of WIC are to:

  1. Decrease the complications of pregnancy.
  2. Prevent obesity and non deficiency anemia.
  3. Prevent low birth weight infants.
  4. Promote optimum growth and development in infants and young children.
  5. Promote breastfeeding.

The overall goals of the WIC Program are to help reduce future health costs by ensuring that the newest members of society are getting access to health foods. In addition, by increasing access to healthy foods and education on how to eat a well-balanced diet, the program hopes to spur the demand for healthy food. Increased demand for healthy foods will then impact the price and access to healthy foods in local grocery stores for all Californians.
Whether you are a cashier, manager or owner at an authorized WIC vendor, you help make the WIC Program a success by providing affordable healthy foods and a positive shopping experience to WIC families.
WIC Program Disqualifications
Regulations are in place to prevent fraud and abuse in the WIC Program. A program violation can result in disqualification or a civil money penalty. A civil money penalty may be imposed instead of a disqualification if the WIC Program determines there is no other store in that area.
In addition to sanctions and possible disqualification from WIC, the WIC and CalFresh Program formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, are required to notify each other of program disqualifications or an adverse action.Thus, if a store is disqualified from WIC, it may also be disqualified from the CalFresh Program!
Regular alerts that are relevant to Vendors are provided by the California Department of Public Health.
Importance of Vendor Training
All vendors are required to attend interactive vendor training when first authorized, and then once every three (3) years. These trainings are designed to help prevent error during a WIC transaction, avoid problems of non-compliance, and improve customer service. It is the responsibility of the store representative attending the vendor training to train and inform all employees of the Program rules, regulations, and policies for WIC.
Some important training topics for your employees should include:

  • What is the purpose of the WIC Program?
  • What food items are authorized by the WIC Program? This should include changes to the food list database when they occur.
  • Advising your employees who stock your store shelves of the minimum stocking requirements.
  • Explaining how to file a report of concern about a WIC shopper by using the Grocer Report Concerning WIC Participant postcard.
  • Explaining how to process and conduct WIC Food Instrument transactions properly.

Continuous training is a tremendous factor for a vendor to remain in compliance with the WIC Program.
Vendor Claim Process and Sanctions
When the WIC Program determines the vendor has committed a violation that affects payment having been made to the vendor, the WIC Program will establish a “claim”—a debt or account receivable is established showing the vendor owes money back to WIC.
If payment of the claim is not received, the WIC Program will pursue further collection action. Non-payment of a claim may affect the vendor’s ability to continue to participate in the WIC Program. For example, if the vendor does not pay in a timely manner, the contract will be terminated.
In addition to denying payment or assessing a claim, the WIC Program may sanction the vendor in accordance with Title 22 California Code of Regulations Sections 40740 and 40741. A vendor will be notified in writing when an investigation reveals an initial incident of a violation for which a pattern of violations must be established in order to impose a sanction before another such incident is documented, unless the WIC Program determines, in its discretion (case-by-case), that notifying the vendor would compromise an investigation.
Violations not requiring a pattern of violations before imposing a sanction include those specified in Title 22 CCR Section 40740 (c) and (d). No warning letter will be provided after an investigation reveals one incident of these violations.
Vendor’s Appeal Process
To appeal an adverse action, submit a written appeal to the Office of Administration Hearings and Appeals, located in Sacramento.
Vendor should take the following steps in response to the violation letter:

  • Appeal within the time frame identified in the letter.
  • Write a letter describing the basis for your disagreement.
  • Submit your letter to the Office of Administrative Hearings and Appeals.

Depending on the type of disqualification, you may or may not be able to accept or redeem food instruments during the appeal process. Vendors may dispute adverse action or sanction as a result of compliance investigation, on-site monitoring, and a sanction from an audit.