Raleigh, N.C. — With only weeks remaining before a U.S. Department of Agriculture deadline, state officials officials set up 11 centers this week to tackle North Carolina's massive statewide backlog of food stamps cases before the state loses federal administrative funding.
One of those centers began work in Wake County, home to about a quarter of all backlogged cases, as the state continues its struggle to implement its new NC FAST claims system. But numbers released by the department show the backlog is falling rapidly after hovering for weeks above 20,000 cases.
During a news conference Thursday, Wake County officials said 17 state workers will help existing county staff tackle the backlog of applications, which now stands at about 3,000 in the county. That number hasn't changed much since the USDA first warned it could pull federal administrative funding from North Carolina's food stamps program in December.
But Wake County officials say the extra help from the state, coupled with contributions from other extra county staffers, reduced the number by 400 cases on Wednesday alone.
Wake County backlog
|Days pending||Cases |
"We feel very confident that, with the resources we're putting forward, that we'll be able to make this deadline," Wake County Assistant Human Services Director Liz Scott said. "We have made this our highest priority. It's an all-hands-on-deck approach."
Scott cautioned, however, that the temporary influx of workers doesn't address deeper problems with staffing levels, which she said have not kept pace with a caseload that has doubled since 2008. She said her department would present a plan to Wake County commissioners at their Feb. 17 meeting to add more permanent staff.
"In order to sustain being able to be caught up and meet our deadline, we're going to have to have a more long-term approach to this," she said.
In the meantime, Wake County Board of Commissioners Chairman Phil Matthews said staffers will work through the weekend to rid the county of its backlog by Feb. 7, a few days before the USDA deadline.
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."
"Hopefully here by next Friday, we'll have the immediate issue taken care of and a good strong game plan to not get back there again," Matthews said.
For the next week, commissioners will monitor updated county backlog numbers daily.
"Wake County is not going to be the reason that North Carolina doesn't meet this deadline," Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Tony Gurley said.
The USDA has required the state to eliminate much of its food stamps backlog by Feb. 10, after first pointing to concerns last fall.
In its latest correspondence in a months-long back-and-forth with Secretary of Health and Human Services Aldona Wos, the federal agency said last week that the state hasn't demonstrated much progress toward improving "actual service to households" and pointed to department figures that show more than 8,000 households have been waiting for more than three months for benefits.
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.
"FNS is alarmed by the persistent problems despite our extensive technical assistance and repeated communications concerning the severity of the situation," USDA Regional Administrator Robin Bailey wrote. "Citizens of North Carolina that need help putting food on the table are not receiving the basic level or responsiveness and quality of service that they deserve from their government."
But in the week since that letter was sent, the numbers seem to be on their way down. DHHS figures released Thursday show that about 10,000 cases have been pending in the NC FAST system for more than a month.
That's a big improvement from Dec. 31, when that number stood at almost 32,000.
Lawmakers ask for help
Also Thursday, state House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam's office sent a message encouraging the General Assembly's legislative assistants to volunteer their time to help clear the backlog.
"Your expertise with constituent issues as well as your excellent customer service skills are in need to help process FNS applications at DHHS. This is strictly VOLUNTEER work with your member’s permission," the email from legislative assistant Anne Murtha said.
But it's unclear how that would help. Scott told reporters Thursday that there's a significant time lag before new workers are able to "hit the ground running" with NC FAST.
"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."
In previous interviews, Wos also attributed a mounting backlog of cases to problems with training and preparedness on the county level.
In a phone interview Thursday, Murtha said she got the idea from a conference call about the backlog. She said many legislative assistants already had some experience dealing with constituents worried about late benefits and that it would help aides better understand the process. Although she hasn't gone through NC FAST training, she said she is "a very quick study."
"I’ll do everything I can to help the state through this crisis," Murtha said.