Haywood on track to meet federal deadline

Counties stand to lose millions through botched state computer rollout
By DeeAnna Haney | Jan 28, 2014

County taxpayers could be left solely supporting the local food and nutrition program if departments of social services across the state don't meet federal demands by Feb. 10.

Authorities with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have threatened to pull administrative funding for North Carolina's food and nutrition services if the state doesn't reduce significant backlogs in the program.

Food stamp applications are supposed to be processed within 30 days, but some recipients have been waiting for their benefits up to 90 days in some counties. The problem arose when the state implemented a pair of programs called NC Fast and NC Tracks which process food stamp applications and run the Medicaid billing system.

"NC Fast is basically a business model redesign," said Ira Dove, interim county manager and director of Haywood County Department of Social Services. "The state is looking at all of the benefit programs and trying to implement them in a way so the clients only have to tell their stories once and get all the benefits they are entitled to."

But glitches in the software implemented last February have caused a backlog. A software upgrade in July was complicated by a series of technical issues and caused processing slowdowns at county departments. The state helped by processing more than 25,500 cases to date, according to a press release from DHHS.

Despite claims from the department that progress was being made, the backlog persisted.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently sent a letter to Aldona Wos, the NC Department of Health and Human Services, demanding the backlog of applications more than 30 days old be significantly reduced by Feb. 10. If the goal isn't met by the deadline, the federal administrative money, about $88 million, could end in March.

"FNS is alarmed by the persistent problems despite our extensive technical assistance and repeated communications concerning the severity of the situation," said Robin Bailey, regional administrator for the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.

The letter noted that more than 23,000 families were backlogged as of Jan. 21, with 8,327 waiting for more than three months to receive benefits.

By the deadline, all counties are required to complete all backlogged expedited applications and complete all applications and re-certifications pending over 90 days.

Officials report progress is being made in Haywood County.

"It looked like there were 30 cases that are outside of the 30-day window and of those, eight were solved today, two were still at the help desk and 20 are in process in the agency. That's all of the cases in every single category. In Haywood, we believe that we should be able to, if everything stays on course, meet the federal deadlines and have all of these cases resolved, said Dove.

So far, the county has spend about $35,000 on a temporary workforce to help with the implementation of NC Fast, Dove said. He has also taken advantage of help from DHHS, which hired more than 160 additional staff to provide support to county offices.

"That's just one way that we are trying to overcome this. We are also having overtime discussions and discussions about what we have to do to make sure the job gets done," he said.

Because of the glitches during the initial rollout of NC Fast last February, the county prepared for the possible need for extra labor.

"We did see that we would need a temporary work force and it was budgeted last year," Dove said.

Federal funds currently pay for about half of the local Food and Nutrition program and the other half, about $24,000 a month, comes from the county.

"That means, if the administrative money is suspended, the county would be responsible for 100 percent of the funding for approximately 13 FTE positions," Dove said.

And eliminating the program altogether is not an option.

"Legally, we would be obligated to supply the food and nutrition program, so we would have to find a way to administer the benefits," Dove said.

Tamika Cullins, a Canton mother of three, said she waited three months before her application for benefits was processed back in August. She called DSS daily requesting information about the progress of her application.

"I feel like if I hadn't called them every day I would probably still be waiting," she said in August.

A Waynesville mother of four recently said the backlog has also affected her family.

"I applied for food stamps Nov. 13 and there was an 'internal error' and I still have not received anything," she said in an email. "I call weekly and they tell me my application is at a help desk in Raleigh and if I don't like it I need to call my congressmen."

They are not the only ones, though.

"This is not locally isolated because all of the counties are grappling with these issues. This business redesign has stretched local resources," Dove said.