NC officials work to end food aid delays caused by new benefits system lfinaldi@newsobserver.comAugust 9, 2013 

Haywood County’s social services division spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on software upgrades in preparation for a new state food stamp distribution system that, when it arrived in February, failed more often than not. Mecklenburg County turns off its phone assistance lines at 2 p.m. so its staff can focus on processing applications. And in Cumberland County, an increased staff is chipping away at 308 delayed cases.

These are just some of the problems county Social Services departments are experiencing with North Carolina Families Accessing Services through Technology, or NC FAST. The state’s new benefits distribution system has been plagued by glitches since its January launch, frustrating social services workers statewide and depriving eligible food stamp recipients of their subsidies.

“We all knew there would be challenges. I don’t think any of us anticipated some of the challenges that we have had,” said Norma Merriman, director of Halifax County Department of Social Services. “It’s been frustrating because we can’t make some of the changes we make on our level.”

Leaders with the state Department of Health and Human Services met Friday to brainstorm solutions to the problems. The session followed a Thursday meeting attended by 55 out of 100 county DSS directors, where the directors voiced their concerns to NC FAST staff.

The state plans to add 160 additional employees to provide local technical support, with at least one assigned to each county. More webinars and classroom training sessions are also planned to better communicate technology updates to the counties, said Wayne Black, the state Division of Social Services director.

About 90 employees are assigned to work in the counties that NC FAST has determined are having the most trouble with the new system.

While the system is causing delays in the short term, Black said it will ultimately make it easier for the state to deliver benefits to residents. Once the system is running smoothly, he said, people applying for programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps, child services and Medicaid will be able to do so with less hassle.

“It’s a major undertaking,” Black said.

One mother of 3 in limbo

But for now, people such as ReShaun Lawrence have no idea when the problems will be solved.

The 29-year-old mother of three has been on food stamps for over a decade. While she’s worked a variety of different jobs during that period, she’s never made enough to support her family without federal assistance.

Last month, Lawrence filled out the paperwork she must complete every six months to continue receiving food stamps. Since then she has not received her usual $668 a month in food assistance. She asked Wake County Social Services about the delay, and a worker told her they were backed up with applications that had been filed months before hers.

“I called the lady, she finally called me back to let me know that they’re backed up, that I wouldn’t be receiving anything anytime soon,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence recently lost her job and has had to use her gas money for getting back and forth to Miller-Motte College, where she is studying for a degree in medical assisting. The family receives vouchers for food pantries, but Lawrence finds the uncertainty about when her benefits might resume frustrating.

Black said he doesn’t know when food stamp-related delays will stop. He said the state is continually working on the problem.

Amid blips, another ‘speed bump’

North Carolina paid $48.2 million in 2008 for the system, which is made by IBM. It’s an off-the-shelf series of programs designed to manage human services, workforce services and social security organizations’ cases. To customize the software to fit its needs, the state hired Accenture, a technology services and management consulting company.

By moving to the IBM program, DHHS aims to speed up application processing and integrate county efforts into one all-encompassing database.

The agency doesn’t blame IBM’s software for the problems, Black said. IBM and Accenture have provided support, working with NC FAST staff throughout the process, he said.

The budget for NC FAST was about $410 million, as of March. The federal government is expected to pick up much of the tab and has provided $103 million of the $151 million spent so far. Hiring additional staff won’t require expanding the program’s budget, said Ricky Diaz, a spokesman for DHHS.

The program rolled out to all 100 counties gradually beginning in January. On July 15, the state began the process of expanding NC FAST to include Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, also called Work First. That posed another “speed bump” for counties, Black said.

‘It will be better for clients’

The glitches associated with NC FAST’s launch caused Durham County to go into “crisis mode,” halting all phone calls at the front desk so the staff wouldn’t be inundated with people wanting an explanation for the delays, said Director Michael Becketts. The Durham staff spends early mornings, evenings and weekends processing applications. Last fiscal year, the county hired 10 temporary workers to help with the backlog.

Becketts said it’s important for counties to stay in communication with their clients about what’s going on. He said when he has explained the situation to his clients, they become more at ease.

“When there’s no information, people get very, very anxious,” Becketts said.

Despite the problems, many county social services directors say they believe the move to NC FAST will eventually be better for their clients.

“It will be better for clients. They won’t have to spend all day at the social service office going from worker to worker to apply for things,” said Eric Bush, director of Duplin County social services. “In the meantime, right now, it is a challenge.”

Bush estimates that out of the 11,500 Duplin County residents on food assistance, less than one percent are experiencing delays. Though the percentage is small, he said he still sees it as a serious issue. “I know [the state is] working vigorously on it but it doesn’t make it easy for the clients we serve and the staff,” he said.

Frank: 919-829-4870

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