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NC officials work to end food aid delays caused by new benefits system

By Annalise Frank and Laura Finaldi
afrank@newsobserver.com lfinaldi@newsobserver.com

Haywood County’s social services division spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on software upgrades in preparation for a new state food stamp distribution system that, when it arrived in February, failed more often than not. Mecklenburg County turns off its phone assistance lines at 2 p.m. so its staff can focus on processing applications. And in Cumberland County, an increased staff is chipping away at 308 delayed cases.

These are just some of the problems county Social Services departments are experiencing with North Carolina Families Accessing Services through Technology, or NC FAST. The state’s new benefits distribution system has been plagued by glitches since its January launch, frustrating social services workers statewide and depriving eligible food stamp recipients of their subsidies.

‘It’s been frustrating’

“We all knew there would be challenges. I don’t think any of us anticipated some of the challenges that we have had,” said Norma Merriman, director of Halifax County Department of Social Services. “It’s been frustrating because we can’t make some of the changes we make on our level.”

Leaders with the state Department of Health and Human Services met Friday to brainstorm solutions to the problems. The session followed a Thursday meeting attended by 55 out of 100 county DSS directors, where the directors voiced their concerns to NC FAST staff.

The state plans to add 160 employees to provide local technical support, with at least one assigned to each county. More webinars and classroom training sessions are also planned to better communicate technology updates to the counties, said Wayne Black, the state Division of Social Services director.

About 90 employees are assigned to work in the counties that NC FAST has determined are having the most trouble with the new system.

While the system is causing delays in the short term, Black said it will ultimately make it easier for the state to deliver benefits to residents. Once the system is running smoothly, he said, people applying for programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps, child services and Medicaid will be able to do so with less hassle.

“It’s a major undertaking,” Black said.

One mother of 3 in limbo

For now, people such as ReShaun Lawrence have no idea when the problems will be solved. The 29-year-old mother of three has been on food stamps for over a decade. While she’s worked a variety of jobs during that period, she’s never made enough to support her family without federal assistance.

Last month, Lawrence filled out the paperwork she must complete every six months. Since then she has not received her usual $668 a month in food assistance. She asked Wake County Social Services about the delay, and a worker told her they were backed up with applications that had been filed months before hers.

“I called the lady, she finally called me back to let me know that they’re backed up, that I wouldn’t be receiving anything anytime soon,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence recently lost her job and has had to use her gas money for getting back and forth to Miller-Motte College, where she is studying for a degree in medical assisting. The family receives vouchers for food pantries, but Lawrence finds the uncertainty about when her benefits might resume frustrating.

Black said he doesn’t know when food stamp-related delays will stop. He said the state is continually working on the problem.

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