Raleigh, N.C. — In early July, the director of Nash County social services emailed a few words of encouragement to her employees, who for months had been hard at work transitioning to a new statewide food stamp system.
Called NC FAST, the software system is intended to streamline delivery of food and nutrition benefits, as well as social services like Medicaid. The process of hand-keying client information had been time-consuming, and it resulted in delays for needy residents early in the process.
But things were finally starting to look up.
"I'm telling you all – the stats are revealing that you are doing much better than perhaps you even realize, and things really are getting better all the time," Melvia Batts wrote. "We will get there ... THANKS to all of you for what you continue to do in this sometimes painful process."
A few days later, something changed.
A WRAL News review of thousands of pages of emails and other public records shows that for more than a month starting July 15, counties across the state struggled with a buggy, sluggish system that frequently froze up and prevented workers from keying in cases. By the time the NC FAST team identified the problem as a simple browser compatibility issue in late August, almost 70,000 food stamp customers statewide – many of them families with children – were waiting on overdue benefits, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That's 8.5 percent of the number of clients the state currently serves every month.
"July 15 was a date all of us will remember well," said Tammy Schrenker, president of the N.C. Association of County Directors of Social Services. "Many of us, I dare say all of us, experienced problems with processing food and nutrition services."
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services for months attributed these problems to the system's "learning curve" and the failure of some counties to properly prepare for the transition.
"The counties that were prepared, the counties that the county commissioners had authorized more staff for the departments, where the departments were on top of their training, where their staff were working with us – those counties had relatively very little problems," DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos told WRAL News in November. "So it's not the computer glitches."
But the department's own internal assessment report shows only a small minority of counties faced problems with training, staffing and technical infrastructure. And as DHHS officials downplayed the widespread technical problems across the state, prompting frustration from social services directors, counties built up a backlog so massive that state workers were forced to tackle tens of thousands of cases themselves.
Although county directors and DHHS officials say the issue is now resolved, records show the issues came at a heavy price for case workers and food stamp clients.
Issues escalated with new update
The problems began July 15, when the state added functionality for Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known as Work First, to the existing NC FAST system.
The update changed the interface and required case workers to enter additional information.
But almost immediately, county social services directors started reporting issues with slow processing, submission failures and cases that disappeared altogether. In emails to each other, they also confirmed the issues were statewide in scope.
In response to questions from the counties, NC FAST IT Director Anthony Vellucci pointed directors to new training guides and said his team was aware of the issues.
"There are definitely some process changes with the new system that workers are getting used to, as well as some items the NC FAST team is working to address quickly, but rest assured that NC FAST is issuing payments and processing cases daily," Vellucci wrote July 17.
That wasn't enough for Robeson County DSS Director Becky Morrow.
"We have done everything possible, but the system is not working," she wrote the next day. "My staff has gone through enough."
The technical challenges plagued even well-prepared counties such as Halifax, which, according to a county readiness assessment conducted July 11, had no concerns noted in any of the 37 evaluation categories. More than a week after the update, a Halifax official wrote that the NC FAST system continued to lock up and awarded incorrect allotments.
In Harnett County, it took one lead worker three hours to key a single recertification.
In messages to Schrenker, who acted as a liaison between directors and DHHS, county leaders pleaded with the state to publicly acknowledge the technical problems in an effort to relieve the backlash for case workers on the front lines.
"It is time for the state to get out in front of this," Harry Maney, Surry County interim social services director, wrote July 25. "Statements to date of minor problems, worker error and requests for patience now sound empty and insulting."
Later that day, a statement to the directors did come from DHHS Social Services Director Wayne Black. It acknowledged "slower-than-usual processing speeds," which the department planned to address with additional servers. But Black also mentioned the "significant learning curve" and encouraged directors – again – to consult the training tool.
Black's audience was disappointed.
"The saddest fact is that benefits will not be delivered timely to recipients who have followed the procedures required of them and [this has] demoralized staff who have worked very diligently to release these benefits on time (while getting yelled at on a daily basis by angry citizens)," Stoney Blevins, of Transylvania County, wrote to fellow directors July 26.
With thousands of hungry clients, county agencies held donation drives, issued food vouchers with county money and referred people to food banks. The impact was felt across the state.
According to Alan Briggs, executive director of the N.C. Association of Food Banks, demand increased more than 10 percent from in July, August and September over the previous quarter. It's a spike he called notable even amid the continuously increasing demand of the last few years.
In early August however, Batts told her staff that things may soon get better. Conversation at the state level, she said, was starting to change, and the director's association was again "pushing hard" for a public acknowledgement of the problems.
"As I try to remain positive about what the future impact of NC FAST will be, I also have to acknowledge that since we are on the 'front line,' we bear the blame even for those things that are beyond our control," Batts wrote on Aug. 7. "That is not fair to you or our agency in general."
USDA criticizes NC FAST roll out
North Carolina's social services, which are supervised by the state and administered by each of North Carolina's 100 counties, experienced delayed benefits long before NC FAST. It's just one of the reasons why counties have pushed for years for a more streamlined system.
Even in the new system, not every delay is a result of the switch, said DHHS spokesperson Ricky Diaz.
Food stamp clients, who must recertify for benefits every six months, may not turn in their paperwork on time. Or the county may have fallen behind in entering paper applications into the system.
Although DHHS can make estimations based on the number of potential recertifications expected, these other factors make quantifying the backlog difficult, Diaz said.
"NC FAST can track the cases once paperwork has been keyed into the system," Diaz wrote in an email to WRAL. "There is not a way for NC FAST to get the whole picture and track this information if the paperwork has not yet been processed by the county."
Regardless, a USDA review during the week of Aug. 26 found that 38,000 recertifications and 30,000 new applications were overdue statewide.
In a letter to Wos noting areas that required "urgent attention from the state," the federal agency wrote that DHHS must confirm the number of backlogged cases and how long they were overdue – something the USDA said the state was so far unable to do.
The letter also noted serious technical issues with NC FAST, which USDA reviewers noticed during their evaluation in mid-August.
"Some of these issues impact all [county] staff and others appear to occur sporadically with varying system functionality available to each worker," USDA Regional Administrator Donald Arnette wrote.
Communication from DHHS about these issues, Arnette said, was "sporadic and inconsistent," another problem that required corrective action.
Solution: Better messaging, switch browsers
As Batts' note to her staff indicated, the internal conversation about NC FAST was indeed changing.
In mid-August, county social services directors were told at their executive board meeting that DHHS was bringing more public affairs staff in to "help with communications on NC FAST over the (next) 6-9 months."
DHHS also authorized the hiring of 160 additional temporary employees to assist counties and the transfer of several workers to the statewide help desk.
And Vellucci told directors he and his staff were working on the blank or "white screen" and forced log-out issues.
Wos was unable to attend the meeting.
More than a month after the system update in mid-July, counties began discussing a possible solution to the freezing, crashing and "white screens" they saw when using NC FAST – switch from Internet Explorer to Google Chrome.
"We are testing on a couple of our computers and the results are remarkable. We are not experiencing 'white screens,' we are not having to refresh and we're not having to log in and out multiple times per case," wrote Steve Garrison, of Buncombe County. "The two staff are able to navigate between screens in real time!"
A few days later on Aug. 22, the NC FAST team at DHHS formally notified all counties that making the switch would drastically improve performance.
Given the number of users involved, Schrenker said, it's not surprising that the technical issues took so long to solve.
"There is some validity in saying when you deal with 100 different counties who are in 100 different places, it's very hard to determine what everybody's exact issue," she said.
In Wos' response to the USDA Sept. 20, she wrote that "after working collaboratively with county IT staff" to identify the fix, "the issue of 'white screens and kick-outs' has been resolved."
But after more than a month of "intermittent difficulties," the massive backlog remained.
More challenges lie ahead from federal rules
To reduce that backlog, DHHS deployed a "SWAT team" of state staff to process applications back in Raleigh.
At the time of Wos' response to the USDA in late September, the group had keyed 1,657 of the cases it received from counties that were significantly behind. But a few weeks later, the SWAT Team had keyed 22,000 cases, boosted in part by some of the 160 additional temporary workers.
"It appears that counties are pretty well caught up in the sense of getting the benefits to the clients on time," Black, the state social services director, said in an interview last week. "I'm not going to say that every single one, every single case, there might be a few here and there, but we're working with them."
He acknowledged the post-July 15 update was a challenge to case workers in all 100 counties, but he reiterated that county preparedness still had a big impact on the delays.
"I think different counties were in different places on July 14," Black said. "I think different counties responded quicker in getting things back up to speed."
As a former county social services director himself, Black said he knows what it's like to deal with angry clients – he ran into similar issues long before NC FAST. But he pointed to the discovery of the Google Chrome solution as an example of how the state and the counties were on the same page.
"I think what you're trying to get at is, 'Is the state saying one thing and the county saying another?' I think I would respond to that by saying we've all worked very closely together on this," Black said.
Months later, both Batts and Schrenker say the situation is much improved. And although she didn't think the state expected some of the problems it saw after the July 15 update, she said they stemmed from a combination of issues on the state and county level.
"All of us need to take responsibility for these issues and not blame one or another," Schrenker said.
Black said that NC FAST is now working "quite well" and is delivering $200 million in benefits to about 800,000 households a month.
"Where we're at right now is looking ahead and planning ahead and trying to work with our counties in preparing for the next phase of this," Black said.
Those phases will include the full implementation of Medicaid for children and adults as well as changes connected with federal health care reform.
Schrenker said she knows those new stages will pose challenges. But she said she's confident that once NC FAST is fully implemented, it will provide much better service to clients who can talk to one case worker to get all the resources they need.
"We still have good days and bad days in NC FAST," Schrenker said. "What we have to understand is that this is a system we asked for."