More challenges than NC FAST behind food stamp backlog, DHHS says

lbonner@newsobserver.comJanuary 12, 2014 

  • Computer’s crunched

    New computer systems have put the state through the wringer in the last seven months. Hospitals, doctors, low-income residents, students and their parents have gotten squeezed.

    Can’t get paid: A Medicaid claims system that the state began using July 1 got off to a rocky start, failing to pay some health care providers for their work treating sick people.

    Can’t get food: Software problems create a backlog of food stamp applications. The U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to sanction the state because of delays it called “unacceptable and a serious failure on the part of North Carolina.”

    Privacy violated: Nearly 50,000 children’s Medicaid cards were sent to incorrect addresses about two weeks ago. DHHS said a computer programming error caused the errors, which violated federal health privacy rules.

    Can’t get report cards: Problems with a new data system delayed report cards last year in Wake, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and other districts.

— The state agency under fire for food stamp backlogs said Sunday that it’s dealing with challenges in addition to NC FAST, the new software that caused so much grief for county caseworkers and clients.

Caseworkers also had extra work to do in the last few months of 2013 to prepare for the new way the federal government is calculating income eligibility for Medicaid, said Wayne Black, head of the social services division at the state Department of Health and Human Services.

With the Medicaid change, the food stamp application pile started to grow, he said. At the same time, the DHHS team responsible for the public benefits enrollment system NC FAST had to make changes to meet requirements of the federal Affordable Care Act.

DHHS and its secretary, Dr. Aldona Wos, are again facing criticism for a struggling program. After a series of issues that included overdue Medicaid payments to health care providers and violations of federal privacy laws, Democratic legislators are calling on Gov. Pat McCrory to replace Wos. McCrory has firmly supported her.

On Dec. 11, the federal Agriculture Department threatened to take away money the state uses to administer the food stamp program because of “completely unacceptable” delays in processing applications.

DHHS officials said Sunday that NC FAST isn’t the only contributor to the backlog and that its own data overstates the problem.

Julie Henry, a spokeswoman for DHHS, said troublesome factors included a new computer system, increased county workloads and adjustments to accommodate the new health care law. That created a “perfect storm” partly responsible for the growth in overdue food stamp applications.

Red tape brings delays

Rebecca Troutman, director of intergovernmental relations with the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, said the new Medicaid rules did take a chunk of local caseworkers’ time, and there’s more to come with eligibility reviews.

DHHS is working closely with counties to cut the waits for food stamps, she said, holding weekly conference calls with county representatives.

“They have requested that counties put in temporary workers and other measures, getting over the hump as soon as possible,” Troutman said.

This summer, software problems tainted the expansion of NC FAST, which counties use to enroll people for public benefits, including food stamps. Residents complained about running out of food while they waited for benefits that were weeks and months late. Charities reported increased traffic at food pantries.

If the federal government takes away money, counties would take a financial hit because they are in charge of administering the food stamp program, Troutman said.

“It impacts county government,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to get it right.”

An initial DHHS tally of applications and reapplications showed that the backlogs got worse after the USDA threatened sanctions, with more cases pending at the end of December than there were in mid-November.

Henry attributed the growing backlog to the “perfect storm.”

DHHS officials, who spent the weekend going through the cases, said they found 4,800 pending applications where people are getting benefits.

The reason, Black said, is that people may have started to file applications online, then later went in to file applications in person at county social services offices.

People don’t get double benefits by filing two applications, he said, but the electronic version will show up a duplicate.

Case workers are probably supposed to go back and check for duplicate online applications, Black said, but given that getting people benefits is their first priority, “We’ve probably got a little bit more work to do cleaning up the numbers.”

About 1.5 million people in the state receive food stamps.

Increased efficiency is the goal

Liz Scott, assistant division director for social services in Wake County, said caseworkers are being asked to do more. NC FAST is working better than it did last summer, she said, but occasional slowdowns hinder workers’ ability to file applications efficiently and stay current with their work.

Black said the state NC FAST team started to time its upgrades so county workers don’t have to face as many slow software days.

The state is waiting for the USDA to accept its action plan, which would have the backlog whittled by March 31. Federal requirements are for emergency applications to be processed within a week and for routine applications to be processed within 30 days.

DHHS had been sending counties their food stamp application numbers each week, Black said. Last week, DHHS told the counties they would start getting daily reports.

The goal of NC FAST is to make government more efficient, and Black says he knows that people in need often can’t wait for food or health care.

“Our goal is 75 percent who have documentation will get their benefits and walk out the door,” he said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner

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