Wake again adds staff to handle benefits programs
Posted November 17, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — The Wake County Board of Commissioners voted Monday to add 86 positions to the county human services department to handle growing social services programs.
The new positions will cost almost $6 million a year, but the federal government will cover the cost.
The move marked the second time in 10 months that the department was expanded to handle backlogs in applications for benefits programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. Commissioners voted in February to add 36 full-time positions.
"I know 86 (positions) sounds like a lot, but that's what we need based on our productivity studies and using the standards from other counties," said Regina Petteway, interim director of Wake County Human Services.
For the past six years, Petteway said, applications for food stamps and Medicaid have been growing much faster than the staff needed to process them. Nearly a third of the current staff is temporary workers, and regular staff has had mandatory overtime and weekend work for two years, resulting in high turnover.
"This has been very stressful as a long-term strategy," she said. "We really didn't intend for it to be a long-term strategy, and we need to right-size our staff."
NC FAST, the state's new benefits administration system, is another part of the problem. It was supposed to be more efficient than the old system, but after nearly two years in operation, that still isn't the case.
"It just takes longer in this new NC FAST system to process an application," Petteway said. "I've seen, on average, a figure that says 10 times longer to process an application."
Sherry Bradsher, deputy secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said most of the effort in processing an application with NC FAST is on the front end because information from the old computer system needs to be transferred to NC FAST.
"The old system had minimal data, and a lot of the integrity of the data wasn't what it needed to be,” Bradsher said, adding that she's had reports of food stamp cases now being updated in two minutes, compared with 10 minutes under the old system.
“I think we're already seeing some of those efficiencies, but I can see systemically why workers feel like they're spending more time with cases,” she said.
Wake County still has a backlog of about 2,600 Medicaid cases in NC FAST. The 36 positions added earlier this year have helped reduce that, Petteway said, but they just can't keep up.
DHHS plans to shift more benefits programs into NC FAST next year, such as child welfare and child care subsidies, which will strain Wake County's staff even more.
"With this request, we hope to be able to be prepared and to not be so crisis-oriented in the future," Petteway said.
Bradsher said that counties statewide have stepped up to get caught up with their Medicaid backlogs. The open enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act, which began last Saturday and ends on Feb. 15, will likely add to the backlogs, however.
Although the state hasn’t yet received any applications through open enrollment, she said she expects to see them come in from the federal government on a weekly basis during the enrollment period – a big improvement over last year, when problems with the HealthCare.gov website and delays in processing applications led to numerous duplicate entries as families applied over and over again.
"We're all in a better place,” Bradsher said.
State lawmakers are scheduled to hear a report from DHHS on Tuesday on how NC FAST is performing.