Cabarrus County leaders are treating a backlog of roughly 4,000 foodstamp applications and recertifications as a major crisis.For some applicant families, it is a crisis. Countywide, applicants are waiting an average of 10 weeks to receive their benefits. Ben Rose, the director of the county’s Department of Human Services, has been in the business more than two decades and said he’s never seen a backlog that big.“Over the past two months, we’ve been looking at this as a major crisis, and we’re attacking it every way we can. And the county leaders are looking at that way, too,” said Rose. “We hate this, and I know our (applicant) families hate this,” he said. “We don’t want this, and our team is working hard to get out of it.”The DHS is pursuing two strategies to reduce the backlog of applicants, whose information needs to be entered in the N.C. Families Accessing Services through Technology system. The statewide electronic case management system was put in place about seven months ago to help consolidate administrative processes and expedite requests for assistance.The Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners on Sept. 16 approved hiring 10 temporary employees for five weeks to help enter data in the DHS Economic Services Division, which handles food stamp cases in Cabarrus. The county also will implement a temporary shortened phone schedule, so specialized teams can dedicate themselves to processing requests.The temporary policy changes should allow workers to process up to 1,750 applications over the next five weeks. In addition, DHS will send 1,000 recertifications to Raleigh for processing. The phone center will operate 8 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays. After hours, clients will get a recorded message.“We have to look past the challenges of the system and find a way to make it work in Cabarrus,” said Rose. “The phone policy is not an ideal solution, but in drastic situations we have to use every tool in our arsenal and apply strategies we’d not normally consider.“We hope the phone policy, working in conjunction with the support of additional employees, will allow us to get families the help they desperately need.”The NC FAST program was launched in Cabarrus seven months ago. County officials said DHS has worked with state leaders to address several issues with the program that nearly every local Social Services department in the state has reported.There also were issues on the state level surrounding policy conversion, implementation and technology glitches, said Rose. Some computer screens would take up to two minutes to refresh. That is a small eternity in the normally lightning-quick world of computer response time, and a delay that adds up to significant time wasted as the worker performs one operation after another. Other computers would lock up and force a worker to shut down or restart. “The system didn’t perform as we needed it to,” said Rose. “You’d fill out a screen, and it would take two to three minutes to get to the next screen. We’ve always joked about it and called it ‘NC slow.’ This system was really slow for us, so we were not able to do the level of work we needed to do to keep up with the volume we had.”The county estimates it has 1,700 people’s applications yet to enter in the NC FAST system, and it receives 700 new applications each month. Rose estimated that at the moment, DHS has about 4,000 applications and recertifications, combined, that need to be processed. And clients are waiting an average of 10 weeks to receive their benefits. “We’re still working on July, and we’re getting September’s (applications) added right now,” said Rose. “When we get out of July, we’ll get October’s applications – but we’ll still have August and September to work on.“Having the same number of people doing the same amount of work each day, you just can’t catch up. But getting some extra hands will hopefully slow that conveyer belt and let us get that backlog down.”The public can help by donating to local food pantries, where food is in higher demand partly because of the backlog, said Rose.“We understand that people are upset, but we’re doing all we can to get cases processed,” said Rose.The county’s move to the temporary phone policy is motivated in part by an upcoming transition of the state’s Medicaid program to NC FAST. On the heels of the food stamp conversion, counties will be required to follow a similar process to transition Medicaid applications and recertifications to the new system. The state is still working to train Division of Social Services employees for its switch, which begins Oct. 1.The county DHS staff recommended the temporary phone policy after an informal analysis of solutions that other N.C. counties used. The Board of Commissioners approved it Aug. 19. The temporary workforce expansion was originally recommended to the county commissioners as an option in August, and they approved it Sept. 16. Cabarrus County leadership will determine the effectiveness of the changes and report to the commissioners at their October meeting.
Friday, Sep. 27, 2013
Cabarrus County struggles with backlog of food stamp applications
Need assistance? What: Clients can apply for food and nurtrition and Medicaid benefits at the Cabarrus County Department of Human Services, 1303 S. Cannon Blvd., Kannapolis. Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays. Details: Clients can call 704-920-1400 between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. weekdays. Online applications are available at www.epass.nc.gov.
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