SMITHFIELD — The file room at the Johnston County Department of Social Services is no longer crowded. Shelves once full of file boxes are nearly empty, one benefit of a new computerized record-keeping system.
The new system, NC FAST, will be online throughout North Carolina by March 22. So far, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has allocated more than $27 million to digitize food and nutrition program records. Over the next few years, DHHS plans to digitize records for other programs, including Medicaid and Child Protective Services.
Advocates of digital records say they will make disbursing benefits more efficient in the long run. Reducing paperwork, for example, makes it easier for employees to pull up and make changes to files.
Earl Marett, director of the Johnston County Department of Social Services, one of four counties that tested NC FAST, said the new record-keeping system would provide substantial cost savings to local governments in the long term.
Obviously, you cant keep hiring people and building buildings, he said.
Last summer, Johnston and three other counties Guilford, Catawba and Carteret began switching from paper to digital records for their food and nutrition programs.
Marett said the transition has been a success despite some setbacks. The county spent $75,000 on overtime pay and temporary workers to make the switch happen.
It also experienced some delays as employees got used to the new system; signs in the lobby asked clients to be patient as DSS made the transition.
Marett said digital record keeping is easier for new employees to learn than the old paper system. It used to take 12 to 18 months to adequately train a new hire; now it takes closer to three.
Paper files also got lost or misplaced frequently, a problem the department no longer has.
A few growing pains
Some counties deploying the new technology are experiencing growing pains. In Wake County where NC FAST became fully operational this month the typical wait time between applying for and receiving food and nutrition benefits is now more than a month.
Elizabeth Scott, director of adult economic services in Wake County, said the departments standard is supposed to be no more than 30 days.
We certainly are not doing that 100 percent of the time now, she said. We have more overdue applications than we did in the past.
The new system also has a key drawback for clients. People receiving food aid must be recertified every three to six months. In other words, they must regularly show they meet the eligibility requirements by submitting records of income and expenses, including copies of pay stubs and household bills.
The new system is also less forgiving of late paperwork. In the past, an employee could accept a clients late paperwork and easily add it to the paper file. This is more difficult with NC FAST.
People need to make sure to get their paperwork in on time, said Julie Henry, a DHHS spokeswoman. The new system is a little less yielding in the procrastination factor.
One of NC FASTs touted benefits is that it can quickly determine whos eligible for aid and whos not. Eventually, Henry said, people will be able to sit down with a counselor, have their names entered into our system and find out what theyre eligible for.
System expansion planned
Scott, of Wake County, dismisses concerns that the new technology places too much decision-making power in the hands of a computer program. The software follows the same guidelines as its human operator. In borderline cases, Scott said, her department will let the employee make the call.
Therell always be situations here and there where you know theres something wrong with the system that this person should be eligible for benefits, she said. But thats not the majority of cases.
Whatever the potential pitfalls, DHHS officials are set on replacing paper records with digital ones. They want Medicaid to be on the system by 2014, with other benefit programs to follow.
At some point, new state DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos says, shed like child-abuse investigators in one county to be able to bring up a records from another county all on a laptop or iPad in the field.
For now, she said, this is a small step in the right direction.