Action Pathways Second Harvest food bank of Cumberland County is one of the latest social service providers with ties to NCCARE360. The free online platform directs individuals in need of food, housing and other services to appropriate providers around the state.

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NCCARE360, the public-private partnership that last year started knocking down barriers to the delivery of social services for North Carolina’s 10 million people, is quickening the pace of its build-out as social needs arising from the new coronavirus pandemic become more acute.

On Jan. 1, half the state’s counties were on the NCCARE360 web-based platform and were connecting some of the state’s most vulnerable individuals and families with housing, food, medical care and other services.

Now 55 counties are active, and 20 more are slated to join the network by the end of May.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

But with COVID-19’s immediate impact on people’s health and incomes, the final 25 counties that were scheduled to adopt the platform by the end of the year can now get on board more quickly.

“We really have opened up the gates to allow any organization that wishes to join the NCCARE360 network at this time to do so,” said Megan Carlson, a senior engagement manager for Unite Us, the New York City-based technology firm that has been laying down the architecture for NCCARE360 and similar platforms in other states.

Most of the remaining North Carolina counties to be served are more rural ones at the edges of the state, and Unite Us is redeploying workers from some out-of-state projects to quicken the pace.

“We have pulled in other team members to help us with this rapid on-boarding process,” Carlson said.

The fix

Before NCCARE360’s implementation, people seeking assistance with food insecurity, affordable housing or other needs were largely left to figure out who could help them.

The result was a time-consuming, hit-or-miss search that left many of the state’s most vulnerable residents feeling tired and frustrated as they knocked on doors, made phone calls, were directed elsewhere and burned through precious savings.

“We needed a better way of a person telling their story,” said Sharon Goodson, executive director of the N.C. Community Action Association, the umbrella group for multiple social service agencies that emerged from late Gov. Terry Sanford’s NC Fund, itself a blueprint for the federal government’s War on Poverty in the 1960s.

The “better way,” Goodson said, is NCCARE360, a free, coordinated care network that helps steer individuals to social service providers who are held accountable for reporting each need as “resolved” or “unresolved.”

Created through a partnership between the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and the Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation and built by Unite Us, the initiative has already brought on board 925 organizations like Community Action and Cone Health as well as 3,092 users like social workers and case managers.

People searching for assistance can do so through the website NCCARE360.org or the 2-1-1 call system run by United Way of North Carolina.

While the call centers in Durham and Asheville are part of the state’s emergency response team and not part of the 360 platform, a unit of the staff has the ability to work with NCCARE360’s information updates to ensure that callers to 2-1-1 connect with the latest resources available, said Laura Zink Marx, president and CEO of United Way of North Carolina.

Carlson told Carolina Public Press the NCCARE360 platform is being updated during the current emergency to add new COVID-19 programs or to delete programs that are temporarily unavailable.

Getting additional hospitals on the platform remains a work in progress, Carlson said.

While Cone Health and WakeMed Health & Hospitals have been live and active on the system for months, the battle against the coronavirus has other health systems focused on more immediate priorities.

“We’ve sort of paused with a few of those,” she said.

Demand for services is rising

“We often see a high food assistance need generally, but even now on the platform that need is rising as well,” Carlson said.

“Food is huge because schools are out,” said Goodson of the Community Action Association.

The pandemic is also forcing on-the-ground providers to reconsider how they deliver services to their clients, she said, and that has meant drive-thru meal services, conducting well-care calls and understanding how to file for benefits under emergency circumstances.

“NCCARE360 connects and tracks service delivery,” Goodson said.

“This is a new day, and it’s requiring all of us to think differently about how we serve those most in need and those who were most in need prior to this pandemic.”

Neil Cotiaux

Neil Cotiaux is a contributing writer for Carolina Public Press. He is based in Wilmington. Send an email to info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.

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