With the implementation of NC FAST, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is taking much-needed and long-overdue steps to upgrade the woefully out-of-date IT systems that manage and administer social services benefits for more than a million North Carolina families.
County DSS directors have been advocating for many years the replacement of the states 40-year-old patchwork of 19 legacy IT systems. Caseloads had increased, upgrades had been made piece-meal and the overall system had no back-up. Technologically speaking, we were living on borrowed time made that much more precious by the Oct. 1 deadline of the federal Affordable Care Act.
NC FAST North Carolina Families Accessing Services through Technology was developed as a tool to improve the way eligibility was determined for a whole spectrum of services, such as Food and Nutrition Services, Medicaid, Work First and Child Care. The long-term project actually began in 2009 under the previous administration with bipartisan support.
The plan was a good one: We would move in seven phases from a paper-based application process to an entirely paper-less case management system, streamlining the application process and increasing speed and efficiency of administering benefit programs.
We acknowledged from the beginning that there never would be a good time to effect a change of this magnitude it would be a huge adjustment in how county staff members were used to doing business. But we designed the seven-phase execution to ease as much of the pain as possible. However, because of the federal mandates and the October Affordable Care Act deadline, North Carolina had no choice but to speed up its implementation.
Beginning May 2012, we began phasing in the system for food stamps. This July, we began adding Medicaid eligibility to the system. The good news is that, despite some initial challenges, counties have been successful in implementing the system. Unfortunately, some clients saw delays in food stamp assistance. Even with some delays, NC FAST issued $203 million in FNS benefits in July and $207 million FNS benefits in August for more than 687,000 individuals and families. This is within a half of 1 percent of what was processed for these same two months in 2012. We recognize that changing the system affects peoples lives so resolving benefit delays is our No. 1 priority.
We want to acknowledge the support of community agencies across the state that are stepping up to fill this temporary gap. This is a wonderful example of the public-private partnership needed to make our safety nets strong for anyone who needs them.
DHHS also is taking proactive steps: Based on feedback from counties, we are making improvements so that NC FAST will be easier for county workers to use. In addition, the state has provided additional communication, training materials and enhanced communications with county staff. Our leadership team meets daily sometimes twice daily to monitor and direct the progress.
We are beefing up our over-the-shoulder support by adding more than 160 temporary employees to expand on-site training and support in each county and on the help desk. With this additional staff, we will be able to have at least one support staff in every county, with no additional cost to taxpayers as the cost will be absorbed within the existing project budget.
As each day passes, we learn from what has gone well and from what hasnt to improve our implementation strategy going forward.
Throughout it all, we continue to keep our eyes on the goal: a 21st century solution that will help us better serve North Carolinas residents.
Joe Cooper is the chief information officer for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.