North Carolina Social Service Benefits Delayed by Software Problems

Since rolling out the food stamp program on new software in September 2012, NC FAST has been plagued by delays in clients receiving benefits.

by Keith Strange, Mt. Airy News / October 21, 2013

The headaches are continuing for beleaguered workers in the county's Department of Social Services (DSS), this time the result of the transition to a new software program.

Known as NCFAST (North Carolina Families Accessing Services Through Technology) the program has been touted as a way to streamline access to benefits.

According to state DSS Director Wayne Black, once fully implemented, NC FAST will allow one application to provide a full range of services, from job training to food stamps to Medicaid.

"Once the transition is complete, it will allow us to have one worker provide benefits for all programs at one time with one application," he said.

But the transition has been anything from smooth.

Since rolling out the food stamp program on the new software in September last year, the program has been plagued by delays in clients receiving benefits across the state.

And on Oct. 1, NCFAST took on new Medicaid applicants in the county.

"(The Medicaid benefits) were rolled onto the new program with a soft launch," said Harry Maney, interim county DSS director. "Only those people who haven't applied for benefits are using NC FAST, but more clients are being added to the program just about every day."

Starting on Jan. 1, all Medicaid benefits will be transitioned to the new system.

And Maney and supervisors Terri Weddle and Karen Smith both indicated there have been problems.

"There have been problems getting information we need, and some issues are having to be resolved before the client can even be entered into the system," Weddle said.

Because of different requirements for Medicaid and food stamps, the learning curve has been steep, Smith said.

"Before the soft launch earlier this month, NC FAST was used only for food stamps, and with adding the Medicaid services, issues have to be resolved related to the language used in the system and how it's entered. Medicaid requires more verification and more information than food stamps," she said.

Maney agreed.

"The food stamp program is very, very different from the Medicaid program," he said. "The rules, concepts and terminology is different. That's what's creating some of the issues, the language used by the U.S.D.A., which oversees the food stamp program, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the Medicaid program."

And clients have been experiencing some delays, Maney added.

"The number of incidents of delays has been going down every week, but there have been some," he said.

And those delays most often relate directly to the new software, a problem that is causing headaches for caseworkers.

"For example, let's say we have a food stamp recipient who has moved and changed their address," Maney said. "Right now, the system isn't picking up the new address. It's causing headaches all the way around. In the regular Medicaid system we were using, we could simply key in the new address and that would be the end of it. Now, if there are five people in the household, we're having to look at each person individually and change each of their addresses."

"A simple thing like an address change can take up to an hour to complete," Weddle said.

But Maney said things are getting better.

"(The transition to NC FAST) is pretty much on track, it's just that as each phase and program is added it becomes more and more demanding," he said. "Ultimately, the application process is going to take longer with the one worker, but then again they're not having to go to three or four different people to receive their benefits. And the workers are having to learn a new way of doing things as well. Food stamp workers are having to learn about Medicaid, and vice versa. They're not only having to learn a new computer system, but new rules and regulations as well."

"It's a huge learning curve right now, for everyone," Weddle added.

Maney said he hopes people will be patient through the transition.

"Everyone here is working really hard to get benefits out as quickly as possible," he said. "And the major concern I hear every day involved the recipient. It's about the lady who needs food for her children.

"That's not something you'd expect in a lot of organizations. But this one has a heart, and our heartstrings are being pulled."

(c) 2013 McClatchy News Service