NC counties receive staffing help to get through food stamp backlog

lbonner@newsobserver.comJanuary 30, 2014 

— With the clock ticking to get through thousands of overdue food stamp applications before a federal deadline, county workers are putting in overtime, and the state has deployed more staff.

State information released Thursday – about a week after the most recent federal warning – shows that the pile of overdue applications was cut nearly in half in seven days, to about 10,000. About of third of those overdue applications are in Wake County, which has a longer waiting list than any other county, one that’s nearly three times longer than No. 2 Cumberland.

Wake leaders vowed Thursday to eliminate the backlog by Feb. 7, with the help of 17 state staffers who are working alongside 110 county workers and 38 temporary employees.

Wake is one of 11 “regional processing centers” the state Department of Health and Human Services established this week where state workers are helping process food stamp applications.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants the backlog of the longest-waiting applications cleared by Feb. 10. A missed deadline means another letter, but the state and counties will still have some time after that to show progress before North Carolina loses administrative funds that amount to $88 million a year.

Wayne Black, the state social services director, said about 200 state workers have been deployed to counties to help file applications and work through NC FAST complications. NC FAST is the state’s new software program that was intended to improve efficiency and speed the delivery of public benefits, but instead has resulted in months of delays for those seeking help.

“The counties are working hard,” Black said. “There are a lot of people working a lot of overtime. The USDA has really put it to us. This is it. It’s got to be done. Everybody understands that.”

A staffer from Apex Rep. Paul Stam’s office sent an email Thursday asking House and Senate legislative assistants to volunteer to help with applications.

Growing caseload

Half the counties’ costs to administer the food stamp program comes from the federal government.

Wake staff is working through the weekend to eliminate the backlog, said Liz Scott, Wake’s assistant division director for social services.

“We have struggled to keep up with the demand in the food and nutrition program,” she said. Part of the problem is that staffing in social services hasn’t kept pace with the growing caseload, she said. While case managers are trying to get through the waiting list, new applications are filed each day.

County staff will present a request to county commissioners in a few weeks to hire more people, Scott said.

NC FAST has cost Wake $1 million since last summer, and it will need more than the $1.8 million budgeted for this fiscal year to keep its temporary staff.

Counties have spent millions on new equipment, employee overtime and temporary help, but still can’t keep up with the requests for food assistance.

Ray Jeffers, president of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, said local government leaders never imagined that getting NC FAST to work would be so hard.

“It was kind of put to us that it was going to make life easier,” said Jeffers, vice-chairman of the Person County board of commissioners. “We were all excited about it.”

Jeffers and social service directors from around the state still have hope that NC FAST will live up to its promises once the problems are fixed. But until that time, they know hungry people are relying on charities for meals while they wait for their food stamp approvals.

‘Hours on top of hours’

The goal of NC FAST was to integrate and coordinate food assistance, Medicaid, Work First, child protective services, and other programs so that clients wouldn’t have to work with multiple case managers.

Carlton Paylor, social services director in Person, said it may have been easier to adapt to the new computer system if it hadn’t been introduced while the economy was still struggling.

More than 25 percent of Person residents eat with the help of food stamps, he said.

“We’re putting in hours on top of hours to make this work,” he said. “It’s going through a very hard time right now.”

Buncombe County won praise last year from Aldona Wos, the state secretary of health and human services, for its NC FAST efforts. The county spent nearly $1 million to get it working.

The county brought on temporary staff three months ago, and the human services department wants to hire more permanent staff, said Jim Holland, director of the human services budget team in Buncombe.

“NC FAST is a radical transformation from the way we’ve done it in the past,” Holland said. “We believe it is the right way to do business. There is a cost to that.”

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

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