02/10/14 — Wayne may lose food stamp money

View Archive

Wayne may lose food stamp money

By Steve Herring
Published in News on February 10, 2014 1:46 PM

Wayne County stands to lose as much as $100,000 monthly in federal reimbursements if the state fails to make progress in clearing its backlog of food stamp applications prior to today's federal deadline.

Losing the reimbursements would leave Wayne County commissioners with two options -- absorbing the cuts or cutting employees, said Debbie Jones, director of the Wayne County Department of Social Services.

Statewide the loss would amount to $80 million or about $6.7 million monthly.

That is not money that goes to the clients, it is money that pays for one-half of the county's administrative costs, Ms. Jones said.

"It would be necessary for the county to pick up one-half the cost, or lay off workers," she said. "I think we will get there. I think the feeling is that the state is going to meet that (deadline)."

The county DSS staff has been working extra hours to get caught up, she said. Staff members do not get overtime, but do get time off, she said.

As of Friday morning, Wayne County had six overdue applications, six overdue expedited applications and four overdue recertifications.

As of Thursday morning, the number of recertification cases reported as pending more than 90 days has been reduced from 358 statewide to just 10.

"The thing is, you rise or fall as a group," she said. "I will say that the county DSS directors are doing a great job pulling together. Counties that are caught up are sending staff to other counties to help them get caught up. Staff have given up family time."

Ms. Jones called it "a crisis situation."

The backlog resulted over the past year as the state struggled to convert the application process to the North Carolina Families Assessing Services through Technologies (NC FAST) software system.

An added concern is what will happen when Medicaid is added to the system, she said. That was to have started to March, but has been pushed back to as yet an undecided date, Ms. Jones said.

In a letter to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Director Dr. Aldona Wos, Food Nutrition Service (FNS) Regional Director Robin D. Bailey Jr. wrote that the agency "is alarmed by the persistent problems despite our extensive technical assistance and repeated communications concerning the severity of the situation."

The continued delays are creating "undue hardship" for the state's "most vulnerable" citizens, he wrote.

If the state fails to comply in reducing the backlog, FNS will issue a formal warning on Monday giving it 30 days to submit additional evidence that it is in compliance or submit revised corrective action plan.

If the response is "inadequate" FNS will suspend the federal funding for state administrative expenses as early as March 12.

According to the letter the state reported more than 20,000 backlogged cases on Dec. 11 of which more than 6,000 had been waiting for longer than three months to receive benefits.

The number mushroomed to more than 39,000 by Jan. 7 . Of that total, more than 8,000 had been backlogged for more than three months.

The totals had fallen to more than 23,000, with 8,327 backlogged for more than three months, by Jan. 30.

Federal law requires that most households wait no more than 30 days from the time of application to receive the benefits.

As of this past Wednesday, the state reported 3,191 backlogged cases of which only 37 were in Wayne County. The county had 1,200 backlogged cases just a week and a half ago.

It is only recently that the county has been able to use a new applications to generate reports on how the county is doing, Ms. Jones said.

Ms. Jones said when she looked at a recent report she saw that Wayne County had a backlog of 1,200 cases, while other counties were showing only 15, or 30 or 40.

"I thought, "Are we that far behind?'" she said.

Shortly afterward, during a DHHS statewide conference with DSS offices, state officials said they wanted to talk about Wayne County.

Ms. Jones said her first instinct was to crawl under the table.

However, the official praised what Wayne County is doing and said that it was what all counties should be doing in filing the applications.

Apparently some counties had not inputted the information, resulting in understating the number of backlogged cases, she said.

Ms. Jones said she could not speak for why other counties were doing it that way.

"Wayne County puts the information in as soon has we have it," she said.

People can apply at the office, online or fill out a form and bring it to the office.

"We never thought about not putting it in," she said. 'We just did what we had been told to do. I am a stickler for following policy procedures. That is the only thing that can keep you out of trouble.

"One reason behind following policy was to know what we had. That was good to hear. We are doing really, really well in making sure we do the job."

Larger and poorer counties have not fared as well because of the volume of applications, she said.

The state has actually set up centers in larger counties and has sent in people to help key in the information, she said.

Ms. Jones said she is not a "techie person," but had spoken to county Information Technology employees about NC FAST. Years ago, limited computer memory required that software code be lean and tightly written, she said. Because of the abundance of computer memory now available that is no longer the case, she said.

She pointed out what she sees as one problem with the software. For example, a head of a household has seven members. When that household moves, the address has to be changed.

Ideally, that should mean clicking on the head of household's name in the system and changing the address. But the actual process requires multiple steps that must be repeated for everyone else in the household -- a process that can take up to an hour and a half, she said.

Also, the program might work one day, but not the next, she said.