By Keith Strange
February 12, 2014
County social services officials say they have met and exceeded a deadline set by the federal government to clear a backlog of food stamp applications.
“As of Tuesday, we had zero untimely accounts pending,” said Social Services Director Kristy Preston, noting that problems with reporting software prevents her from knowing exactly how many accounts had been overdue in the county. “It looks like across the state there were a few larger counties that still had outstanding accounts, but we met the goal last Thursday or Friday, before the deadline.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture told the state Department of Health and Human Services in late January that it needed to complete all backlogged benefits applications of more than 90 days by Monday or face the loss of $88 million in federal funding the state receives annually to manage the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (food stamp) Program.
Preston said her department brought in reinforcements to help handle the work.
“We have some retired employees who have been working to help us and we also had a full-time person from the state that was working with us,” she said. “We pretty much pulled all our workers from every program to work on the backlog of accounts. They worked overtime and put the time in to make it happen.”
Preston said she hadn’t heard anything further from the state, but she believes the USDA, will be pleased with the results.
And she is now looking forward.
“At this point we don’t have any overdue accounts at all,” she said. “Our goal is to keep all accounts current from this point forward.”
State officials said the backlog required a lot of work by a lot of people.
Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos told legislators Tuesday that county social services offices, state workers and volunteers worked long hours to process more than 20,000 applications and renewals by this week’s deadline.
As of Monday, there were 25 applications remaining but Wos said county officials were still waiting for information from the applicants or continuing to try to contact them.
“We have successfully achieved our first milestone with the USDA,” Wos told a legislative oversight committee, adding that “DHHS has worked tirelessly and took unprecedented steps to get the job done.”
Wos said more than 290 state workers travelled to regional processing centers or county offices to help with the applications. Counties hired temporary workers, and employees within the General Assembly even volunteered. Some worked nights and weekends.
“Our staff worked every day to reduce that massive backlog,” Wos said. The USDA also told the state to complete backlogged applications subject to expedited processing.
The USDA federal agency had received the state’s report Tuesday and was reviewing it, a spokesman said. The state isn’t done with meeting the federal government’s demands. By March 31, the state must eliminate any applications that are now waiting for longer than 30 days, the threshold the federal government uses to evaluate timely processing.
There were more than 1,200 applications waiting longer than 30 days as of Monday, according to DHHS data. That number is subject to change as the state receives 45,000 new food stamp applications per month.
“The goal that we have set for ourselves is to catch up and to stay caught up,” said Sherry Bradsher, deputy secretary for human services. She and Wos said the department was putting together a plan to do that and help county social service offices work more efficiently.
The department would bring in workers again to help if a backlog surfaced again, DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry said later. It wasn’t immediately clear how much the state or county governments had paid for overtime or temporary workers.
Members of the General Assembly’s oversight committee still wanted assurances the backlog won’t creep up again. They were particularly interested in NC FAST, a computer system used by county offices to enter applications for those receiving government benefits.
“I’m really concerned that we don’t get in this position where we were again,” said Sen. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth.
An initial backlog began last summer as an NC FAST software update caused computers to freeze or crash. State health officials said in October that problem — and the backlog — had been addressed. But the backlog grew again, DHHS said, due to increased responsibilities for county case workers as NC FAST began determining eligibility for Medicaid based on new income thresholds.
The NC FAST problems that led to the most recent backlog — and identified in a December USDA letter — have been addressed, Bradsher said. “There have really been no performance issues.”
Preston said that while there have been problems with the NC FAST software, she believes it will ultimately be an effective tool for processing applications.
“NC FAST has been a challenge, but we believe it’s going to be the right thing to do going forward,” she said.
Keith Strange can be reached at 336-719-1929 or via Twitter @strangereporter.