Counties using the state’s new computer system to administer the federal nutrition program for women and children say so far they’ve experienced only a few hiccups – a welcome change from the last software change mandated by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

DHHS began transitioning counties onto Crossroads, as the new software management system is called, at the end of May. The agency has rollouts scheduled every month until November. Wake County will begin using the new program beginning the week of Aug. 18.

Counties that have been using Crossroads for a while say they’ve experienced occasional system outages when they’ve been unable to print vouchers for clients or had to enter information manually.

“Each day there’s been a short period where the system has gone down for maybe 20 to 30 minutes,” said Marilyn Pearson, director of public health for Johnston County.

But, Pearson said, the minor issues they’ve experienced don’t compare to problems they had with NCFast, DHHS’s system for enrolling in food stamps, Medicaid and other assistance programs.

After NCFast was introduced last year, counties experienced large backlogs of applications, and earlier this year the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to pull about $88 million in federal funding from the food stamp program if the backlog wasn’t reduced.

“There have been some little things that have come up along the way,” Pearson said of Crossroads. “I think the Division of Public Health has been planning a very long time for this transition.”

Josephine Cialone, head of the nutrition services branch for DHHS, said the glitches they’re seeing so far with the WIC software are the kind to be expected when implementing any new system.

Cialone said the gradual rollout would allow the agency to fix any interruptions and correct errors along the way, which is partly why larger counties, like Wake and Guilford, are scheduled for later rollouts.

“We wanted to have as much experience under our belts as possible before we rolled out our larger agencies,” Cialone said. “Should we encounter any issues, we are able to manage them more effectively.”

To help counties prepare for the switch, DHHS provided webinars and training sessions to WIC employees.

“The more experience they have the better,” Cialone said.

According to DHHS, North Carolina has one of the largest WIC programs in the United States. About 250,000 people currently participate. Crossroads is expected to reduce the amount of paperwork required by each family, ultimately saving more than 760,000 pieces of paper per year.

The old system required each member in a family to answer identical questionnaires, while Crossroads aggregates information for entire families.

County employees who have encountered initial difficulties also said they expect Crossroads to save time and resources.

Catawba County WIC program director Julie Byrd said the new system has already allowed public health employees to focus more on their clients’ health and nutrition and less on paperwork. Catawba County started using the new system July 28.

“We expected there to be some transition things to deal with,” Byrd said. “Once we become more efficient in the system, we’ll be able to streamline services even more.”

WIC, which is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, provides supplemental nutrition for women and children who earn less than 185 percent of the U.S. poverty level or are already receiving Work First Family Assistance or Medicaid.

©2014 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)