Raleigh, N.C. — Wake County health officials are working on a plan to allow legislative aides to help reduce the backlog of food stamps cases ahead of a looming federal deadline.
Statewide, county health workers must eliminate much of their backlogged applications by Feb. 10 or risk losing federal funding for the administration of the food stamps program. Wake County, which claims the largest share of late applications, announced Thursday that it would receive state workers' help to bring those numbers down.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, more help may be coming from legislative aides after a call for volunteers from the office of state House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam.
Data issued by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services shows the wait times for food stamp applications and recertifications in North Carolina.
"You will win by gaining first-hand experience with how the Food Nutrition System (FNS) operates and gain valuable experience processing claims," the email Thursday from legislative aide Anne Murtha read. "The BIGGEST winners will be the many people who are waiting to get assistance. By helping them complete their applications, you will expedite them getting the necessary assistance they need to feed their families."
In an email to WRAL News Friday, DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry said 10 legislative staffers have contacted the department so far. She said Wake County officials are now working on a plan for how the aides can help.
"We are very supportive of their desire to assist the counties in working through outstanding cases," Henry said in the email.
But it's unclear how that would help. Wake County Human Services Assistant Director Liz Scott told reporters Thursday that there's a significant time lag before new workers are able to "hit the ground running" with NC FAST, the new system designed to streamline delivery of social services.
"We could hire 100 people today, but it takes a good amount of time to train them," Scott said. "People tend to spend several months going through the training process in order to really be proficient and be able to produce a good number of applications."
Read the documents
Correspondence between N.C. DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos and the U.S. Department of Agriculture between Sept. 4 and Jan. 23 detail areas that required "urgent attention from the state."
In a letter to county directors Friday, state Social Services Director Wayne Black wrote counties could use volunteers to contact waiting clients for missing information, take phone calls or review paperwork.
Many legislative assistants, Murtha said, already have experience dealing with constituents worried about late benefits. Although she hasn't gone through NC FAST training herself, she said she is "a very quick study."
"I’ll do everything I can to help the state through this crisis," Murtha said.
Most of the work over the next 10 days will rely on county case managers, who must process about 7,000 applications and recertifications stuck in the NC FAST system to meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture deadline. While this doesn't amount to the entire backlog, the federal agency says it's the minimum to demonstrate progress.
The bulk of that requirement consists of emergency applications considered untimely after waiting seven days. Another 2,000 are applications and recertifications that have been pending for three months or more.
For many counties like, that will mean working through the weekend. In the letter Friday, Black told directors "it is imperative" that counties schedule the maximum number of allowable overtime hours to get the job done.
"Directors should mandate that, in addition to overtime work hours, that staff be held accountable for meeting productivity standards," Black wrote. "We believe that the standard for each staff should be 10 applications or recertifications completed each day."
The USDA warned in December that the state must take action to bring its food stamps program into compliance or risk losing federal administrative funding for nutrition benefits. For months, the state has struggled to keep up with food stamps cases during the rollout of the NC FAST system, which has caused significant slow-downs for workers processing cases.
Since the USDA's initial threat, the backlog has declined significantly after a brief high point on Dec. 31, when the number of cases waiting longer than a month hit almost 33,000. That number now stands at about 10,000, about half where it stood a week ago.
But if DHHS isn't able to show it has met the federal agency's deadline, the USDA will issue a "formal warning" requiring a response from the state in 30 days.
"If DHHS' response is inadequate, FNS will suspend Federal funding for State administrative expenses as early as March 12, 2014," the USDA wrote in its latest letter.