Food stamps still backlogged
Some who depend on state funds to put food on the table are waiting longer to receive food stamps as a result of a new statewide system.
After waiting out the delay for month, a Canton mother of three finally resorted to daily calls to find out about her options. It took three months before her claim was processed.
The problem stems back to February when Haywood County Department of Social Services began converting all of the county’s 10,000 food stamp recipients to a new computer system called NC Fast, but it’s been a time- consuming process, said Debbie Brown, economic services supervisor.
While all of the old food stamp cases have been converted to the new system, there is currently a backlog of about 200 cases that are pending review before they can receive their benefits, she said.
“We are not completely caught up, but we are making progress,” said Teresa Allison, program administrator at DSS.
The applications are being processed much more quickly now with 75 percent of new applications within 30 days compared to 55 percent in May.
Other programs are being affected by NC Fast as well.
Beginning Oct. 1, DSS offices across the state will begin accepting Medicaid and Work First applications for the federal Affordable Care Act.
In anticipation of that change, the state implemented software upgrades to the NC Fast programs in mid-July to allow counties to accept an influx of Medicaid and Work First applicants. Those changes required extra staff training, which caused additional delays in food stamp processing, said Allison.
Backlog causes hardship
A team of temporary employees is helping to process the backlog of applications, but for some recipients, it’s not been quick enough.
Tamika Cullins of Canton relies on food stamps to stock her cabinets so her three children, ages 8, 7 and 3, don’t go hungry. She took all the necessary steps to reapply for her food stamps in early May, but after a month went by, she still didn’t have her benefits.
Cullins said she left several voicemails with DSS staff, asking for an explanation. Finally, she was told they were having difficulties with the new system.
After two months went by, Cullins was unable to buy food to send with her sons to Meadowbrook Elementary School for snack. She finally had to ask her father and his girlfriend for help.
“If it wasn’t for my family, I would probably be somewhere homeless,” she said.
Despite multiple calls to DSS, Cullins said she never received information about where she could get food in the meantime.
“What really made me mad is that I asked if I could have a referral to go somewhere to get food. Nobody once called me back,” she said.
“I wasn’t really hungry. It was more about my kids. They could have starved. It’s just ridiculous because I know I’m not the only one going through this."
She continued to call every day until the issue with her case was finally processed, which didn't happen until two weeks ago.
"I feel like if I hadn't called them every day I would probably still be waiting," she said.
Though Cullins said she is glad to have finally received her benefits, she worries if she will go through the same experience again when she has to reapply for her benefits.
Allison said it’s impossible to know what kind of delays, if any, DSS will experience in October.
“Without really knowing what the volume of applicants will be, that one is kind of hard to predict,” she said. “We do know that we will be relearning what we already know because it is a very different process from the way we do Medicaid and Work First now.”
However, Allison said DSS does help their clients find food elsewhere if they are experiencing delays in their benefits.
Allison said that anyone with any questions about particular cases can call DSS and they will be directed to someone who can help.
“We will work with them in any way we can,” she said.