Progress continues toward cutting food stamps backlog
Posted February 3, 2014
Updated February 4, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — Under the gun of a federal ultimatum, state and county health officials cut a longstanding backlog of food stamps cases nearly in half over the weekend.
Data released by the state Department of Health and Human Services Monday show about 3,600 cases remain for workers to process before a Feb. 10 deadline, down from about 7,700 on Jan. 30. Case managers must complete these applications before next week or risk losing about $88 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For months, the USDA has warned DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos that the state was at risk of losing this funding, which the federal government contributes for administrative costs of North Carolina's food stamps program. At issue, federal officials say, are "continued delays [that] create undue hardship for the most vulnerable citizens of North Carolina."
Problems began to mount for most counties in July, as the state continued its roll-out of NC FAST, a new system designed to streamline the process of applying for and receiving social services benefits.
But despite months-long wait times for food stamps that affected around 30,000 cases in late December, social services workers seem to be getting a handle on the problem with what they're calling "all-hands-on-deck solutions."
"We're feeling pretty good," Wake County Assistant Human Services Director Liz Scott said, "but we have quite a push to make over the next several days."
About 35 percent of the backlog the state must eliminate by next week lies in Wake County, which is still about 1,300 cases away from its goal. But that's down significantly from Jan. 30, when the backlog stood at 2,500.
The USDA's requirement covers the largest portion of the state's total backlog, which stands at about 6,700 cases, down from about 12,500 on Jan. 30.
On Thursday, Wake County officials announced that more than 100 human services staffers would work overtime and over the weekend to tackle the late applications and recertifications by a county-imposed deadline of Feb. 7, a few days early. They also received help from state workers, part of an effort by DHHS to bulk up processing with 11 support centers across North Carolina.
In a press release from DHHS Monday afternoon, Wos praised state and county workers for reducing the backlog by more than 72 percent in the last 10 days.
"We have been pushing toward the Feb. 10 deadline from the federal government, but that is only our first hurdle," Wos said in the statement. "Our long-term goal is to help counties plan for sustainable and timely processing as we move forward."
That long-term plan will be an increasing focus in Wake County, where Scott said workers have struggled with staffing levels that haven't kept up with the increasing demand for benefits. Slowdowns with NC FAST, she said, didn't help.
"This isn't an NC FAST issue alone," Scott said in an interview over the weekend. "That is one factor in a number of factors that have caused us to be this far behind."
Scott told reporters Thursday that she is planning to submit a proposal for expanding staff at her department when county commissioners meet Feb. 17.
But for now, she said all of the county department's focus is on getting through Feb. 10.
"It would be extremely horrible for the state to lose funding from USDA for our administrative costs for our staff when we're in a situation of needing more staff to process what we need to do," Scott said.