The Ashe County Department of Social Services staff is working overtime to confront problems caused by the conversion to a new state mandated computer program.
The program, N.C. FAST, was designed to add efficiency to the SNAP and Medicaid application process. That has not been the case since the program was launched in fall of 2013, according to local DSS staff.
“When you change a system that is this massive, you’re going to have problems,” Donna Weaver, director of Ashe County Social Services said. “We have experienced tremendous problems.”
The conversion to N.C. FAST has lead to a statewide backlog of more than 20,000 people waiting to receive food stamps for 30 days or longer, according to data released by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
“The problems are with the system, not with our input and not with our training process,” Weaver said.
Weaver said the Ashe DSS staff have been undergoing an extensive training process for at least a year to prepare for N.C. Fast, which required employee trainings and departmental restructuring, in addition to IT upgrades such as additional bandwidth and tech support.
N.C. Fast is designed for “universal workers,” meaning workers who process both SNAP and Medicaid applications, whereas previously the benefit applications were taken by staff in separate departments.
Jeana Arroya, Program Administrator for Income Maintance at Ashe County DSS said only new applications have been entered into N.C. Fast to date, but beginning in February, reviews and re-certifications for people who are already receiving benefits will be keyed in the new system as well.
“Right now, applications that were taken before we converted to N.C. FAST are still in our old system,” Arroyo said.
The state is transferring records from the old computer system into N.C. Fast. However, because the previous system, Legacy, required less information for applications to be processed than the new program, county employees have to manually update the files.
“We will have to go in and update all of the Medicaid cases in N.C. Fast with information that they couldn’t obtain out of the Legacy system,” Arroyo said.
The county was provided matching “50/50 funding” by the state, through June, to hire two temporary workers to aid in the conversion process.
“The state recognized the trouble that we were having, so they sent us a free position, called an ‘over the shoulder’ support person, who has been here for two months,” Weaver said.
Despite efforts made by the state to provide assistance to the counties, the conversation has lead to highly-publicized backlogs, increased wait times for people who come into the office to apply for services, as well as pressure from the federal government.
“We’ve had long wait times for clients because the system is slower,” Arroyo said, adding that glitches within the system “throw a kink into trying to service clients in a expedited manner.”
The backlog in Ashe County is only 12 people for Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), or SNAP applications or reviews, and eight others for Medicaid. The real concern for Weaver is the amount of time people on the backlog have been forced to wait for benefits.
“The people have gone months on end without food stamp benefits,” Weaver said, “We have sent them to all of the county’s food pantries, and the pantries’ supplies have been depleting weekly.”
Michael Sexton, program facilitator at Ashe County Sharing Center said he has watched families come to the Center’s food pantry as a result of the backlog, but has also heard from people who need help as a result of unemployment benefits being cut or delayed.
“Schools have stepped up, churches have stepped up, the community has stepped up,” Weaver said, “This community has been extremely sensitive and responsive to people, and I’m so proud of what it has done for people who are struggling.”
Weaver said the federal government has threatened to withhold administrative funding to the state because the backlog is causing cases to be in violation of USDA time standards to receive food stamp benefits following an approved application.
N.C. DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos responded to the federal warnings in a publicly released letter, saying that “some counties have struggled to complete re-certifications in a timely manner” and siting progress made in fixing “errors with the central server at N.C. FAST.”
Wos said DHHS has developed a “SWAT team of staff” to provide on-site support to the counties with the largest backlogs.
“I hate the blame process that happens,” Weaver said, “The public never gets an accurate picture of what is going on.”
Weaver said the county staff has felt the stress, but has remained both positive and determined to help applicants through the process.
“We’re putting in a lot of overtime just to insure that we can get the benefits out in a timely manner,” Arroyo said.
The bright side, said Weaver, is that N.C. FAST, DSS and DHHS are all working in collaboration, around the clock, to work through the system’s growing pains.
“I believe this is natural by-product of implementing something new,” Weaver said, “When the system works smoothly and efficiently, it will be better than it was before.”
Christina Day may be reached at 336-846-7164 or on Twitter @cdayinwj