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Hilda Gatling, a caseworker with the Watauga County Department of Social Services, works with the new N.C. FAST system on Friday. Photo by Kellen Moore

Originally published: 2013-01-12 16:00:17
Last modified: 2013-01-13 09:33:18

New DSS software could cause delays

The Department of Social Services will roll out a new software system this month, and staff members are asking for patience from clients as they deal with glitches in the program.

N.C. FAST, which stands for Families Accessing Services through Technology, is an electronic case management system being implemented statewide that is intended to reduce time spent on administrative tasks and allow staff to focus more on assisting families.

Watauga County DSS Director Jim Atkinson said the premise behind N.C. FAST is good, but it is riddled with problems and redundancies that make it a headache for staff and clients.

“It has slowed us down, and it’s going to continue to slow us down until it has been perfected, so to speak,” Atkinson said. “It’s going to be a long process, and there are going to be people waiting longer in our waiting room and waiting longer for their benefits, unfortunately.”

In theory …

N.C. FAST has been tossed around at the state level for almost two decades, Atkinson said. It replaces an older system that “needed to be replaced,” he said.

As it stands now, a resident who needs to apply for multiple services might have to supply the same information on multiple forms and make several visits to DSS to meet with separate caseworkers.

N.C. FAST is intended to streamline applications for all benefits DSS administers, which include:
• Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps, which helps low-income families purchase food;
•  Medicaid, a health insurance program for low-income individuals;
• Work First, also called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides money to certain underemployed parents with children;
• Child-care subsidies for working parents;
• Energy programs and fuel assistance;
• Children’s services;
• Adult protective services for the elderly and disabled.

“The long-term goal of N.C. FAST is excellent: that everybody can come in here and see one person and have them take care of all their needs,” said Janie Trivette, food and nutrition services supervisor.

In practice …

In October, Watauga County began a “soft launch” of the program and has since entered about 300 new SNAP applicants into the system.

Along the way, they discovered some of the problems the pilot counties also found.

In some cases, the system wrongly computes income and benefits to issue incorrect, lower amounts to clients, Trivette said.

While clients may not realize the benefit is wrong, staff typically can tell whether an error has occurred and issue a supplement, she said.

The glitch comes as a disappointment to a department that has enjoyed an accuracy rate close to 100 percent, Atkinson said.

The system also codes all college students as ineligible, although some may be eligible if they live off campus and work 20 hours a week or are in a federal work-study program, Trivette said.

N.C. FAST also includes redundancies, such as requiring the caseworker to enter the home address for each person in a single household, she said.

The staff is hoping it won’t have the same problem another county did: losing thousands of cases “in the cloud.” Those clients eventually received their benefits, but not when they should have, Trivette said.

In the past, the office has been able to receive an application, verify the need and begin issuing SNAP or Medicaid benefits the same day or within a couple of days, Trivette said. In many cases, the longest delay was simply waiting for the benefit card to arrive in the mail.

Under the new system, clients may not receive their benefits that quickly, she said. In fact, the staff jokingly calls the program “N.C. SLOW.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services could not be reached by presstime to discuss the program’s shortcomings.

Hard launch to come

The workload is expected to increase during the “hard launch” later this month, when staff will begin converting existing SNAP cases to the new system.

With 1,842 cases active as of November, the process is expected to take at least through the end of 2013.

“It takes about two hours for each conversion, so we’re talking 4,000 hours,” Atkinson said. “It’ll take four people doing nothing but that eight hours a day about a year.”

Atkinson said other staff will be pulled in to help, and he has requested that County Manager Deron Geouque plan for department overtime to complete the conversion.

The process will continue with Medicaid cases starting this fall, followed by other DSS benefit programs.

To plan for worst-case scenarios, Trivette said she has called the four local food banks — Hunger and Health Coalition, Hospitality House, First Baptist Church and FaithBridge United Methodist Church — as well as the F.A.R.M. Café to tell them they may want to stock up extra for February when the transition begins, in case benefits are delayed.

DSS is also urging clients to bear with them as they tackle this behind-the-scenes challenge.

“They’re not going to see all this happen, but they’re going to feel the effects of it,” Atkinson said.