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State, County Still Working to Resolve Food Stamp System Problems

5:21 PM, Jun 25, 2012   |    comments
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Greensboro, N.C. - We told you local families needed food, and you donated generously during our News 2 Food to Families Emergency Food Drive earlier this month. Even though your tax dollars paid to feed the hungry once, you dipped into your wallet by choice, and bought food.

Almost two weeks later, there is still a need out there. The food stamp problem is working better, but it's not completely back to normal. About 40 families are still without a way to buy food.

Guilford County Division of Social Services Assistant Director Steve Hayes said, "The myth is that somehow we're just bureaucrats. But, you know, many of us are just one paycheck away from being on the other side of the desk...We understand that people need food stamps in order to eat. We're doing everything we can to try to get those benefits as quickly as possible."

The state of North Carolina is trying out a new software program in a few pilot counties. Guilford is one of them. As a result, some families haven't had food stamps to buy groceries.

WFMY News 2 spoke to two of the other pilot counties Monday. Catawba and Johnston Counties told News 2 things are getting better, but they're having glitches, too.

Meanwhile, Guilford County employees are working weekends to keep the system moving forward.

"The reason Guilford County was, I believe, chosen is because historically, we process our benefits very timely. We have exceeded the state standards for timeliness every month for the last year. So, when you roll out a pilot, and this is a pilot, you want to pick a county that has a history of being able to deliver benefits on time," Hayes said. "The staff at the Department of Social Services has been incredibly dedicated. They understand that people need food. These are people who really, desperately want to try to help the public."

All the overtime put in trying to fix the issues is being covered by using funds from vacant positions.

In addition, Guilford County employees frustrated by the software issues are organizing their own food drive to help the hungry families. Plus, the state has sent eight people to Guilford County to help as well.

One final thing for families in the food stamp program: If you turn your forms in late, that creates a huge delay. Late forms can take up to thirty days to process, which is within state guidelines. Bottom line? Get your renewal forms in on-time or early.

News 2 reached out to the state Division of Social Services and received the following email in response to our questions:

News 2: Have the other pilot counties had any similar issues (like Guilford County)?

State of NC: We are implementing the NC FAST system in phases. Four counties volunteered to be part of the first pilot. They are Carteret, Catawba, Johnston and Guilford counties. These counties are a good representation of our state, not only in demographics, but in caseload volume and in internal operations. These four pilot counties went live on May 21. Buncombe County started piloting new applications last week.

Part of the value in conducting a pilot is the opportunity to identify issues and address them as they arise. Each of the four counties has experienced challenges in using the NC FAST tool and those challenges vary. NC FAST has had no major software defects. Early pilot discoveries included local computer hardware, however those problems were addressed. Growing familiarity with the tool continues to improve worker productivity.

Caseload and volume also have impacted county experiences. Guilford, as the largest of the pilot counties, has the highest volume of clients. The other pilot counties experienced some incidents of clients losing their benefits but those were fairly isolated cases. 

News 2: Will this exact system be installed statewide? When?

State of NC: The plan continues to be to deliver the NC FAST tool statewide, however, with every day county users are identifying ways to improve the performance of the tool. For example, as a result of county feedback, NC FAST worker training is being modified.

DHHS is also modifying its rollout plan. The original four counties went live using the tool for both new applications as well as making any changes to existing cases. The new roll out schedule will allow counties to begin taking applications within NC FAST and once proficient, begin other work in NC FAST at a late time. This modified approach allows workers to have access to the old legacy computer system while working with the new system.

News 2: What changes are being made to the system given the problems that have occurred in Guilford County?

State of NC: As noted in the above answer, we have made changes in the pilot implementation plan, allowing counties to have continued access to the former computer system while continuing to use the new tool. The modification to training should improve county experience as well. 

News 2:  What else can you tell us?

State of NC: Conversations occur daily between DHHS and the pilot counties. These conversations are productive and are moving us in the right direction. The loss of benefits for anyone is unacceptable. For that reason, counties can refer any case to the NC FAST help desk or work with anyone assigned to their county to resolve benefit issues. As counties identify needs for support, DHHS is working with the counties to ensure that resources are provided as quickly as possible.

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