10/23/13 — Families should see help from state soon

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Families should see help from state soon

By Steve Herring
Published in News on October 23, 2013 1:46 PM

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Seth Mabry

Carrie Woodard, a supervisor at the Wayne County Department of Social Services, reviews cases for the North Carolina Families Accessing Services through Technology program today. Implemented a year ago, NCFAST initially created a three-month backlog in Wayne County. As of Monday, the backlog had been reduced to two weeks.

After up to a three-month delay in receiving benefits, Wayne County's program to help put food on needy families' tables is almost back on track, local officials say.

State officials created NCFAST to have one system that allowed recipients to apply for more than one assistance program at the same time, saving staff time and making sure families receive all the help for which they are eligible.

The problem was, it didn't work at first -- causing applicants to face long wait times to receive aid.

At the Wayne County Department of Social Services, that meant a backlog of nearly 500 applicants at one time, said Debbie Jones, DSS director.

But now the system is back on track, Ms. Jones said.

As of Monday, the department was about 70 applicants behind, or about two weeks.

"We are still running behind, but not hugely behind like we were," she said. "It will eventually smooth out. The old-timers who have been around for 20 or 25 years will tell you this is exactly what happened when the child support computerized system came onboard. It did exactly what NCFAST is doing.

"It didn't half work. They had problems. Everybody hated it. But now, they cannot imagine working without it. They, in fact, are going to eventually segue over to NCFAST. It takes time and these programs are so complex."

To help fill the gap left by the delay in getting the food stamps out, DSS has been referring clients to local food banks and the Salvation Army.

But on occasion demand has outstripped what those agencies can supply.

"They have told us they are not making referrals right now until November," Ms. Jones said. "They have already exhausted their food that they could distribute for October."

DSS conducts food drives several times throughout the year to help, including one just recently in September. There are not really many other options except soup kitchens and local food pantries when food stamps are delayed.

The amount of time required to input data into the system, particularly when there are six or seven people in a family, contributed to the backlog.

Ms. Jones said she thinks another issue is that the system was rolled out before it was ready. Adding to the problem was all of the state's 100 counties coming on at one time and "just overwhelming the system."

"In the beginning we were as much as three or four months behind," she said. "The state said that NCFAST is working so well that they have now expanded it. So now we are taking Medicaid."

The new system will allow one staff member to handle the application process for all the programs, speeding families through the system and connecting them with the aid they need.

The problem is that, for now, the county is operating with NCFAST and the former systems at the same time, which slows down the process, said Cynthia Graham, economic services administrator.

"Workers have to determine which system they need to go into whenever they have someone come in to make an application," she said.

If the person is already active in the state system, the legacy system is used. If they are not active, the information is entered into the NCFAST system, Mrs. Graham said.

Even then there is a wait since the state is dumping the information from the old system into NCFAST, she added.

"It is a continuous process," she said. "It is not as easy as just pressing that button, and it magically happens.

"Everybody's situation is different. Sometimes a worker will spend 40 minutes working in this and gathering information. Then the person they are talking to will throw out a new piece of information and that changes everything. So there is still a lot of worker one-on-one time with clients."

Medicaid does not seem to be as much of a problem as food stamps were, Ms. Jones said.

"I am not getting the volume of complaints with Medicaid that I saw with food stamps, and I don't know why," she said.

Mrs. Graham said she thinks it is because the county is in the "soft launch" of the Medicaid aspect of the program. The hard launch won't come until after the first of the year.

"What that means is that all of the old information in the legacy system is going to be dumped over to NCFAST, and we won't be going back," she said. "So then that is going to be another big transition."

That will be done by the state.

Ms. Jones said the county will have to wait and see and be as prepared as it can be for the next roll-out on the system.

"When they did that with food stamps, that is when we had some of the big problems," she said. "That is sort of when the whole thing imploded."