Raleigh, N.C. — The state's health agency is revising its number of backlogged food stamps cases after discovering more than 5,000 duplicates languishing in its new computer system for months.
The Department of Health and Human Services' new estimate puts the number of North Carolina families waiting longer than a month for food assistance at more than 27,000, although DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry said there may be a "substantial number" of duplicate cases still in the problematic system known as NC FAST.
The system, contracted and designed under previous administrations but rolled out in earnest under DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos, was meant to streamline delivery of social services for needy residents. But the implementation of the program has been marred in recent months by technical problems and delays – and DHHS officials admitted last week that the problems aren't getting better.
The revised number of pending cases is still a marked increase over the backlog the state was experiencing a month and a half ago, when the department notified the U.S. Department of Agriculture that 20,000 food stamps recipients were seeing significant delays getting their benefits. It's one of the factors that prompted the USDA in December to warn it might pull funding from the state's food stamps program unless DHHS improves to meet federal requirements.
News of that warning broke late last week, when the department released months of correspondence between Wos and the USDA.
"We pretty much had been thinking this was an improvement over where we were when [NC FAST] first rolled out. But I think we were surprised to learn we're still having backlogs to the extent we are," Alan Briggs, executive director of the North Carolina Association of Food Banks, said Monday. "All we knew is that we were experiencing a whole lot of demand."
Duplicate cases muddy picture of backlog
Henry said clearing out duplicate cases is just one part of the department's effort to meet federal requirements by March. That's why she said members of the NC FAST team worked over the weekend to identify suspect cases that could be skewing the numbers.
"It's the oldest cases that we feel most confident are the redundant numbers," Henry said. "If someone's been waiting more than 120 days, we'd be hearing from them."
She said that, with duplicates out of the way, staff can focus on the real problems.
"If there are still people out there that haven't had applications processed, we want to know," Henry said.
New applications enter the statewide NC FAST system on the county level, either through case workers or clients via an online portal. Users might get stuck in the system and try again, either because of a glitch or because they stop and come back later with more information
Henry emphasized that safeguards in the NC FAST system prevent duplicate applications from issuing benefits to more than one client. But as of now, clearing redundant cases means DHHS workers must double-check them with the counties, who are then responsible for removing them from the system.
"What we're doing right now is determining what needs to change in the system so that red flag comes up," Henry said.
In addition to technical problems with the NC FAST system, Henry pointed out that county workers entering cases have also been challenged by the integration of the Medicaid eligibility component on Oct. 1, a hard federal deadline that slowed down the application process.
"It's more questions to ask, more work to do," Henry said.
Further on the horizon, Henry said, the state is expecting 40,000 Medicaid applications from North Carolinians applying for coverage through HealthCare.gov, another buggy system that has taken months to get up to speed.
"What we're trying to figure out is how we can help relieve some of the burden on counties," Henry said.
Families feel backlog's impact
All of those factors filtered down in 2013 to the state's most vulnerable populations, which Briggs said were deeply impacted by the cessation of benefits during the federal shutdown and congressional downsizing of food stamps program funding.
"Everybody recognized we really did get hammered in October," Briggs said. "About all a social service worker could say is, 'We'll put it in the system, but here's the number for the local pantry.'"
Briggs said preliminary numbers from the last quarter show food banks in North Carolina saw a 10 percent increase in food delivery over the previous quarter, which also saw a significant bump as problems with NC FAST rippled across county social services agencies. But he said it's hard to pinpoint the exact cause of that increased demand, which continues to rise despite signs of a slowly recovering economy.
"One of the dilemmas we have is, even though we see demand going up, we can't untangle the different events that are affecting us," Briggs said.
Duplicates aside, he said the actual backlog of waiting families is enough to notice.
"Whatever the case, we still have a significant number of families who are experiencing need because of delays," he said. "Whether it's 20,000 or less than 20,000 households, you hate it for any of them."