01/16/13 — System trouble slowing food stamps

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System trouble slowing food stamps

By Steve Herring
Published in News on January 16, 2013 1:46 PM

A cumbersome new software system and understaffing are being blamed for a backlog in processing 500 food stamp cases in Wayne County, leaving families in need waiting for benefits.

The problem has grown so bad since the new state software system went live in October that Debbie Jones, the director of the county Department of Social Services, has been forced to hire temporary help and to shift staff around in an attempt to help chip away at the number.

Her department also has been cleared for overtime this Friday and Saturday as DSS staff, including Ms. Jones and her program directors, will be working to try to reduce the backlog.

"We will all be working," Ms. Jones said. "We are hoping to catch up. I need more staff. Over the last years since the economy went south, more and more people have applied and qualified. But we are still operating with the same staff we have had for the past several years.

"North Carolina has gone to a new software system for food stamps, NC FAST (North Carolina Families Accessing Services through Technology). We went live with the system in Wayne County in October. The problem is that NC FAST is slower than the old system. I processed food stamps yesterday. What used to take about 30 minutes under the old system now takes one and a half to two hours per person."

NC FAST will eventually add more programs, which will allow customers to submit one application for various programs and services, thereby minimizing the number of people clients will need to see to apply for benefits, she said.

Work First, Medicaid, Special Assistance and Refugee Assistance and Child Services are scheduled to be included in NC FAST.

Seeing clients is not the cause of the delay, keying the information into the system is, Ms. Jones said. That can slow the process when there are six or seven people in a family.

The problem has been building up since October because the staff was unable to do all of the month's applications, she said.

"It just keeps adding and adding up," she said.

Contributing to the problem is that the workload is heavier during the winter because people who work outside are unable to work and they apply for help, she said.

"We are behind by 500 cases and have been behind since we implemented the system in October," she said. "There are about 50 cases left from November and 357 from December.

"If they have been getting food stamps for 15 years and it is time to re-certify, we have got to convert all of the old cases manually into the new system. The new system is designed so that eventually data will be included for several programs in child welfare and Medicaid."

That means that when someone applies for Medicaid, or another program, all of the information already will be in the system and will not have to be entered again.

Once approved the benefits are normally loaded on the client's electronic benefits card within 24 hours. The department is trying to help in the meantime, she said.

"We are giving them food vouchers to the Salvation Army and food pantries to get them over the hump," she said. "Once the benefits are approved it will go back to November. They will not lose November at all."

There is no monetary value to the vouchers, they merely confirm that the person is in need of help, she said.

A meeting is planned in Raleigh to talk about the system and its problems. Ms. Jones said she does not know how the state could walk away from the system because of the time and money already invested.

However, there are some "new folks in town," she said, referring to a new Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature.