In his first State of the State address, Gov. Pat McCrory made a commitment to improve customer service in state government. He pledged to reduce regulatory roadblocks for business, and he railed against DMV wait times lasting over an hour and a half. Yet children and families across the state have been waiting for over a month for food stamp benefits. Where do they fit into McCrory’s commitment to customer service?
Since mid-July, thousands of families in North Carolina have had to wait weeks and months for SNAP benefits (commonly known as food stamps) as a result of the failed rollout of a new computerized program known as NC FAST. Statewide, over 50 percent of the households receiving food assistance include children under 18. From the mountains to the coast, food pantries are stretched to their limit, and parents are unsure of how they will feed their children. Wake County currently has over 3,000 overdue applications despite hiring new staff and paying overtime.
So far, McCrory and Health and Human Services Secretary Aldonna Wos, who oversees the implementation of NC FAST, have done little to help those affected by the delays.
NC FAST is a new computer program that will eventually serve as an enrollment hub for the vast majority of public benefits, including Medicaid and child care subsidies. To be clear, NC FAST is absolutely necessary. Currently, public benefit programs operate in silos requiring separate enrollments for each program. This creates headaches and barriers for consumers and massive amounts of unnecessary administrative work for county social service agencies. When NC FAST runs properly, it will be a good thing for North Carolinians.
Until that time, the administration must take responsibility for food stamp delays and provide relief to those in need. Wos’ spokesperson has blamed counties for the delays, claiming in multiple news reports that delays in food stamp benefits are a result of a “learning curve” at the county level. If all 100 counties are still experiencing a “learning curve” after almost two months of problems, then DHHS should have done a better job planning and preparing for the transition to NC FAST.
To their credit, DHHS staff members are working long hours to fix the technical issues, and the department has provided counties with temporary “Onsite Support Staff” to help implement NC FAST. Unfortunately, technical assistance doesn’t fill an empty belly. Samara Lupold of Cary, who recently was featured in an N&O article, and her twin 9-year-old boys need food now.
The McCrory administration does have options available. Durham County is providing clients experiencing delayed food stamp benefits with debit cards for local grocery stores. Durham is able to do this because it has a relatively wealthy tax base. Since most North Carolina counties don’t have that option, the governor could provide temporary funds for counties to purchase grocery store debit cards for those waiting on delayed benefits.
If that option doesn’t work, then the governor could increase the capacity of our food banks by making emergency grants to private agencies or by purchasing food in bulk and distributing it to the counties most in need. For instance, Wake County Human Services and the United Way of the Triangle are providing over $50,000 in emergency funding to increase capacity at depleted food pantries. State funding would allow all counties to implement similar relief measures.
This issue isn’t going away. Starting Oct. 1, the state is required by federal law to incorporate Medicaid enrollment into the NC FAST system. Later, other benefits like child care subsidies will be included in NC FAST. If the McCrory administration doesn’t fix the problems with NC FAST and fails to make contingency plans for more glitches, we could see this pattern repeated on a larger scale and with more serious consequences in the months to come.
To do nothing except blame others is a failure not only in customer service, but also in leadership.
Rob Thompson is executive director of Covenant with North Carolina’s Children.