GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Months after the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services resolved to fix ongoing food assistance program delays and backlogs, many people in the Triad still claim they cannot get their benefits and are put on hold indefinitely when calling their local DSS offices for assistance.
Catching up on the backlog of food assistance recertification has been an ongoing process for the Guilford County Division of Social Services (which serves 46,000 families), ever since the implementation of NC FAST caused statewide glitches and delays in food and nutrition services assistance programs.
Therefore, within the last two months, the office said it has used DHHS's offering of providing state employees to assist at county DSS offices.
Economic Services Division director Steve Hayes said the office also has used county funding to implement three new features. Those include a call center staffed by 24 existing full-time employees who have been repositioned solely to handle food assistance cases. Also, Guilford DSS has created a computer lab, in which a case worker or state employee can help clients navigate the state EPASS website, where they can apply for benefits. Hayes explained this computer lab is a self-service tool that can help people apply for or change their accounts, themselves.
Hayes said, "When you call, it is possible you are going to have to wait a while, especially if you call on a Monday or Tuesday, which are the busiest days, or if you call at the beginning of the day or at the ending of the day. There can be substantial wait times. We can receive as many as 3,000 telephone calls a day here at DSS, and if you think we have only 24 people taking those calls, it is almost impossible to keep up with that demand."
A third resource now made available by Guilford County DSS is a new e-mail address, with which people can e-mail a simple change to an account--like another child in a household or a change of address--or ask a question. That e-mail address is SSCSCTEAM@co.guilford.NC.US
Hayes acknowledged many food and nutrition services clients blame their local DSS offices for the food assistance problems they have incurred. But, he said his team is just as frustrated with the issues that have been attributed to the NC FAST system.
"You can come to the department of social services for a career because you have it in your heart to care about people. You want to help people improve their lives, and you think you can make a difference. It's as frustrating for our staff as anybody when you're not able to make that change, and we hear it from our customers all day long. So we ask for your patience. Know that your worker is doing the best they can to respond to huge caseloads," Hayes said.
Hayes did not speculate on when all of the problems, which mostly include those with application recertification, would be entirely fixed. But, he did warn that county DSS offices are preparing to encounter potentially more problems in the coming months.
"We're making great progress in getting there. Something to remember though is we have something called the Hard Launch coming for Medicaid cases, which means all of the Medicaid cases will be loaded into this computer system in the Spring. So that's coming up also. There's going to be more hiccups along the way until we have all of the cases loaded into the new system," he said.
Hayes said he hopes people try and focus on what he said is Guilford County DSS's end goal in making food and nutrition services more efficient. "What we hope will happen in the end...that all of your benefits will be handled by one worker with one system so you don't have to come up here two or three times a year to get your Medicaid, to get your food stamps, to get your day care. That you can come up here and tell your story one time and get the benefits that you need."
For more information on food and nutrition services benefits or to apply for them online, visit the state EPASS website.
WFMY News 2