Aldona Wos. Photo via Gov. Pat McCrory's office.

This story originally appeared here and is shared by Carolina Public Press through a content-sharing agreement with North Carolina Health News.

By Rose Hoban

When she appeared before a legislative oversight committee Tuesday morning, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos told legislators that only 25 outstanding food stamp applications and decertifications remain out of an enormous backlog that was cleared in time to meet a federal deadline.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service warned North Carolina in a Jan. 23 letter that failure to address a backlog of more than 30,000 eligible recipients who were unable to receive their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (commonly known as food stamps) would result in the state losing almost $80 million of federal funds used by counties to administer the program.

Some recipients had waited four months or more to receive their applications.

Wos described the effort by state and county workers to clear the backlog as “herculean,” and noted that it required 18-hour days, seven days a week since mid-January. She did not, however, answer a request to estimate the cost of that work.

Counties across North Carolina were behind as a result of the rollout of the new NC FAST computer system, which is intended to make it easier for county social service workers to enroll recipients in a variety of benefit programs.

The rollout of the NC FAST system was clunky and problematic, with crashes and glitches that resulted in more than 68,000 new applicants and people needing their annual decertifications in the backlog by the end of the first 45 days of operation. That number was whittled down by mid-January; but by then, federal officials had tired of prodding North Carolina and issued an ultimatum.

Democratic Sen. Floyd McKissick told Wos he was disappointed that it took a federal threat – and more than seven months – to clear the backlog.

And while DHHS took criticism for putting some of the blame for the backlog on county social service workers, some counties did a better job in keeping current than others.

All of the half-dozen social service directors contacted for this story praised the efforts of their front-line workers, many of whom endured the frustration of working with a problematic system with many glitches.

“I have to brag on my staff,” said Robeson County Social Services Director Becky Morrow. “My staff has really worked hard from the beginning and put a lot of hours overtime.”

Big and nimble

In mid-January, when federal officials threatened to pull funding from the state, large counties such as Wake and Mecklenburg had thousands of untimely pending applications. But despite the fact that Mecklenburg has 75,000 SNAP recipients to Wake’s 35,000, Mecklenburg had about half the number of pending applications.

On Monday afternoon, Wake County still had several hundred applications pending.

“We had the advantage of being one of the last counties brought into the system because we were the largest in terms of eligibility,” said Peggy Eagan, director of the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services.

Eagan said that her department had a number of vacant positions, and county commissioners gave the department permission to use the available funds to pay for 55 temporary staff members and overtime for others as early as late last spring.

“We believed we were current until the meltdown in mid-July,” she said, referring to implementation problems that hobbled the system as it rolled out July 15 and lasted well into August. “When NC FAST was down in mid-July, we had staff coming in at 5 a.m. and staying until 7 p.m. It took us to mid-to-late-August to catch back up.”

For Mecklenburg and many other counties, more slowdowns due to the system cropped up in October, in conjunction with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

Her managers attempted to accommodate staff members who came in to work on weekends by allowing them to place their children in a child-care center run by the county.

Eagan’s biggest complaint was that the new system never really made it faster to complete applications and decertifications for benefits. She said her department processes close to 500 SNAP recertifications daily. “Pre-NC FAST, it was 20 to 30 minutes [for a recertification]; post NC FAST, it’s about 50 minutes.”

Universal workers

One of the concepts behind implementing NC FAST was that counties would be able to train “universal” workers, staff who would be proficient in all parts of social service policy and procedures.

“In the past, someone may have walked into the agency, up to the front desk, and said, ‘I’d like to apply for [food stamps] and Medicaid,’” explained Phillip Hardin, economic services director for Buncombe County. “Then a Food and Nutrition Services worker came out and they went and saw that worker, and then they sat back down in the lobby, and the Medicaid worker came out, who knew Medicaid policy and the Medicaid system, which was separate, and took their Medicaid application.”

Hardin said that in the “NC FAST world,” that would no longer be the case – that social service workers would be able to process applications for all kinds of programs, not just the one they had expertise in.

“What you hope with NC FAST is that as you’re sitting talking with someone, the system is screening them for multiple programs, not just one,” Hardin said, noting that right now NC FAST is only equipped to process SNAP benefits and Medicaid, but that eventually the system will also include prompts for child-care programs, energy-assistance programs and welfare.

“This is taking the job that we did a year or so ago, before NC FAST, and flipping it upside down,” he said. Hardin said he hoped that when the system’s many glitches were worked out, it would be more efficient.

But in Orange County, social services director Nancy Coston said the problems of just getting NC FAST to function correctly meant she discarded plans to make each of her workers universal for now.

“We had to back away from that, and allow specialists to work on the [food stamp] cases,” she said.

Modern management

“We’re all about the data,” said John Eller, director of social services in Catawba County.

He said he volunteered his department to be one of the NC FAST pilot counties in order to get a jump on what they anticipated would be a rough rollout.

“We’ve had several counties come on site to look at our processes and we’ve had phone consults with other counties,” he said. Eller’s more-experienced staff also went to nearby counties to help them clear their backlogs.

“When we found something that didn’t work, we’d share them with the state and make it better for everyone,’” Eller said.

Another advantage Catawba had, according to Eller, was that his department has an agreement with his county commissioners to set annual performance thresholds and goals. If his department meets those goals, the county gives the department a bonus that goes to a rainy-day fund.

Eller used that money to pay many of his 430 staff members overtime this past year as they worked to get problems with NC FAST resolved.

In Orange County, Coston said that being from a better-resourced county meant she also was able to pay her workers overtime, rather than comp time.

“When would those people be able to take all that comp time they accumulated?” she asked.

But Coston noted many social service directors could only offer the promise of time off in the future to workers who needed to put in the long hours to clear the backlog.

“Some counties just have more resources,” she said. “Poorer counties have a harder time getting the equipment and the overtime.”

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