A letter from the federal Food and Nutrition Service last Friday conveyed “alarm at the persistent problems” and questioned whether the state recognized the “severity of the situation.”
“Continued delays create undue hardship for the most vulnerable citizens of North Carolina,” the letter states.
As of last week, the backlog statewide included more than 23,000 households with 8,300 waiting more than three months to receive benefits. Federal law requires food assistance applications to be processed within 30 days.
The federal Food and Nutrition Service under the USDA issued two benchmarks for the state to come into compliance: by Feb. 1 the backlog for the most critical and timely applications must be fixed; and by March 31 the entire backlog must be cleared out. Further, the state cannot fall behind on new applications that come in during that time.
The crisis with the food stamp program at the state level has now landed in the laps of county Departments of Social Services. The state sent a letter to all 100 county DSS directors Friday urging them to step up their efforts at the local level to help fix the backlog.
“We now find ourselves in a very serious situation. It is imperative that we all implement ‘all hands on deck’ as we would do in an emergency, including working overtime, assigning staff from other areas to assist with this very important work,” the letter states.
But county social service agencies have already been doing that. Haywood County has had staff working overtime and even hired temporary workers to help tackle the backlog. Haywood has coughed up $35,000 from its own coffers on the extra labor over the past six months, an expense that will continue to accrue indefinitely.
While county social service workers are the go-to point of contact for needy people applying for food assistance, the backlog is tied to a new state system rolled out last summer that changed the way applications are submitted and processed.
But county workers have been hamstrung by the new system that was prematurely rolled out by the state before being operational.
The problem was two-fold.
One is simply manpower. It is far more time consuming to prepare and submit applications under the new system. The more lengthy process has meant county social workers simply can’t handle the same volume of applications as they could before.
“It takes longer when someone comes in to capture all the information. They have stretched the resources of the local workforces,” said Ira Dove, Haywood County DSS director and interim county manager.
But aside from the sheer workload the new system created, there were also extensive technological glitches. The new computer program designed to process applications under the new system didn’t work properly.
“Any technology overhaul, you’re going to have lots of challenges,” said Jane Kimsey, Macon County DSS director.
Applications would fail to process, would be sent to a special “help desk,” and languish there unresolved. At one point last September, there were 4,300 “help desk” tickets for applications that had been keyed by counties in but failed to process by the state. Counties also had trouble connecting to the state computer system, resulting in dark periods.
“It is not easy to track down an error in why it won’t process a case,” Dove said.
The state initially planned to roll out a comprehensive new system for a broad spectrum of social service benefits in 2017. But the state sharply accelerated its own timeline to try to get parts of the system in place before federal health care reform went into effect.
To help overwhelmed county social workers, the state hired a “SWAT” team of 160 emergency staff to chip away at the data entry backlog.
Kimsey tapped the state’s offer of help to keep the backlog down in Macon County.
“If anyone runs over the 30 days we’ve been able to run it up to the state,” said Kimsey. “I can tell you locally we don’t have a problem but we are one county of 100.”
The state’s new system for handling assistance applications was arguably good intentioned. The long-term goal was to streamline a whole suite of social aid benefits — from food assistance to emergency heating funds to child care subsidies to Medicaid benefits.
Instead of people applying for each assistance program individually, a single application would determine eligibility for any and all benefits.
“The theoretical or hoped for advantage is that one day somebody could walk into the agency and tell their story once and be able to get benefits quicker,” Dove said.
The food assistance program was the first piece to be moved under the new system. But the implementation has been lacking.
Since September, the state has been under two corrective action plans to fix the problems. But the state has not complied with the terms of the plan, including failing to provide weekly status reports and in other instances providing inaccurate and unsubstantiated data, according to the USDA.
The backlog in processing food assistance claims not only persisted, but even continued to grow.
“These delays are completely unacceptable and a serious failure by the state of North Carolina,” the USDA Food and Nutrition program wrote in a letter to the state in December. “We have grave concern for the low-income people of North Carolina who are waiting for assistance.”
Reporter Holly Kays contributed to this story.