DOBSON — County social services officials are keeping a keen eye on Raleigh and Washington to see whether threats of cutting food stamp funding to the state will become a reality.
Ironically, the threats are the result of delays across the state in processing food stamp applications as a result of problems implementing new software touted as a way to make the process more efficient.
Federal regulators have warned North Carolina’s health agency to resolve delays in processing food stamp applications, or face losing federal money to run the program.
The state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) said this past fall that problems with the NCFAST (North Carolina Families Accessing Services through Technology) program that began in the summer were being worked out. A similar message was given to legislators at a General Assembly oversight committee in October.
But in a letter to DHHS Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service office in Atlanta said the department didn’t provide an action plan requested in November detailing how it would reduce application and renewal delays.
The delays affected more than 20,000 households, more than 6,000 of which had waited for more than three months for benefits, according to the Dec. 11 letter sent by FNS administrator Donald Arnette.
Without compliance, federal funds used to administer the program could be suspended or ended, the letter said.
“These delays are completely unacceptable and a serious failure on the part of North Carolina,” the letter said.
“We have grave concern for the low income people of North Carolina who are waiting for assistance. DHHS must work aggressively to correct the issues” affecting people to purchase food, the letter added.
Addressing the issue, county social services Director Kristy Preston says a loss of federal funding could result in the county having to foot the bill for the program.
“The major impact would be in administrative funding for our food stamp workers, the actual caseworkers who process the food stamp claims,” she said.
Since the program is federally mandated, Preston says that even if funding is cut the benefits would still have to be provided to the county’s needy. Currently, the county receives about $500,000 a year to administer and fund the program. About 7,000 households in the county receive food stamps.
At present, Preston said Surry County had between 100 and 150 families are experiencing delays that range from a few days to a month or more. She said the families are simply forced to wait out the delays until officials with NCFAST can get them worked out.
But Preston noted that even if the state funding is withheld by the federal government, county residents will still receive benefits.
“We would still be required to carry on with the program, but we would have to figure out a way to manage it,” she said. “My guess is if the funding is cut we would have to go to the board of commissioners to ask the county for funding. Just because the federal government pulls our funding, we’d still be required to provide the services.”
While Preston says she has “no way to predict” whether the funding will actually be pulled, she says the current climate between the feds and the state is unusual.
“I’ve been in social services for 20 years and have never seen anything like this happen, but then again we’ve never been in a situation like this with NCFAST,” she said.
In response to the threat of the loss of federal funding, DHHS offered a corrective action plan to regulators just before Christmas and said it was already being carried out. Defects with the NCFAST computer system have been fixed or addressed, according to the Dec. 23 letter signed by Wos’ chief of staff. County social service directors, whose offices use NCFAST, also received reminders about what the federal government considers to be appropriate time frames for applications and renewals, the letter said.
“DHHS continues to work closely with county social services agencies and are monitoring our progress weekly,” Sherry Bradsher, the department’s deputy secretary for human services, said Thursday in a statement. “Our work will continue until all clients are receiving benefits in a timely manner.”
Delays with NCFAST began after a software update went out July 15, leading to backlogs in the counties that handled the applications, according to officials. State workers were brought in to handle applications and to help counties reduce the early backlogs. Counties also determined NCFAST didn’t work well with a certain Internet browser.
The threatened loss of federal funds is another setback for a department that is still working through problems with the Medicaid billing system called NC Tracks, which came online in July. An error with NC Tracks led the agency recently to send Medicaid cards for nearly 49,000 children to the wrong addresses.
But Preston says that despite implementation hurdles, she still believes that once the bugs are worked out the software will help streamline access to benefits.
“We have to get through this implementation,” she said. “And once we do, I do believe it’s going to make our work more efficient. There have been some problems, but in the end we believe it’s going to make our work more efficient and better.”
Reach Keith Strange at email@example.com or 719-1929.