NCFAST program causing problems in Ashe County, state

Wil Petty Staff Writer

August 29, 2013

Technical problems in a new state computer software system has the county department of social services increasing its backlog resulting in many local families not receiving food and nutrition benefits in a timely manner.

The N.C. Families Accessing Services through Technology (NCFAST) software was developed as a way to streamline the multiple benefits the DSS provides. Since Ashe County started using the product for FNS benefits in January, problems with families receiving benefits have been nearly non-stop.

“It has been a nightmare to be perfectly honest,” said Donna Weaver, director for the Department of Social Services in Ashe County.

Weaver said the problem is not on Ashe County’s end, but that the product itself is not working well.

When the county first began using the new program, extra efforts were made by the local DSS staff to insure those eligible for benefits continued to receive them, despite the system’s inability to process them correctly.

County workers would come in as early as 5 a.m. to troubleshoot and keep the operation running smoothly, said Karen Riddle, the food and nutrition services supervisor for Ashe County.

“Our workers put in lots of extra hours,” Riddle said. “Most of the time our public did not know and that was the goal, to make sure our public didn’t suffer.”

Weaver said the state has starting providing on-site assistance, to help solve some of the problems.

“(The state is) going to be sending people to counties and provide over-the-shoulder assistance to try and help get the problems with the system cleared up,” she said.

In July, the state uploaded the Medicaid portion of NCFAST into the system, causing additional errors in the system statewide. Eventually other programs such as Work First Family Assistance, cash assistance programs and adult services will be processed through the system.

All 100 counties in North Carolina are now using NCFAST for FNS benefits. Ashe County has not used the program for Medicaid, but the county’s data is in the system.

Riddle said there are families in Ashe County who have not received their FNS benefits since June, and that monthly between 25 and 30 families are not receiving their benefits on time.

Despite the program being new and full of errors, there is no alternative way of processing the application for benefits or for those on the program to receive the benefits.

“There is no method to manually distribute benefits, which is extremely frustrating for us,” Riddle said.

Riddle said the local DSS office can fix one or two problems a day, usually with help from Raleigh.

“Some of the cases we can fix from Ashe and we do what we can, ” she said.

Very few alternatives are available to those dependent on the FNS benefits.

“We are having some real desperation,” Riddle said. “We are referring people to food banks, but the food banks are not able to supply the need.”

Workers within the social services department have been bringing in food to send to the families and other organizations have been helping out through sending gift cards and groceries.

“The workers have been bringing food in,” Riddle said. “We’re taking something to (the families), we know the difficulties are making life extremely difficult for some people.”

Many food banks have monthly limits on how often they will give food to people. The Ashe County Sharing Center in West Jefferson is aware of the situation and has been working with families who come in more than once a month because of the backlog.

The organization works with the Second Harvest food bank of Northwest North Carolina, who notified the Sharing Center that the problems were occurring.

“(Second Harvest) said this is a problem, so we work with people who come in maybe for the second time each month saying that they haven’t gotten their food stamps,” Michael Sexton, director of the Sharing Center said. “We don’t turn anyone away because of that.”

The Sharing Center has also made changes, becoming solely a food pantry and no longer providing clothing. Sexton said he believes the change will be permanent.

Sexton said July and August have been the busiest months the center has had since he has been there.

“We are serving more families with children than we ever have,” he said. “Roughly 50 percent of those coming in have children.”

While some food banks are able to help, it is unknown how long the problems with NCFAST will continue. County workers have been working hard to solve the problem.

“(The workers are) struggling because the state’s system is not working and they can’t fix it,” Weaver said.

Riddle said one day NCFAST should be a good system. But for now, the solutions in Ashe County remain unknown.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do, we just keep trying the best we can each day,” Weaver said.