Lee County ahead of curve in clearing food stamp backlog

But pace is causing strain for local DSS employees
Feb. 13, 2014 @ 04:59 AM

North Carolina may have just barely managed to clear a federal deadline to remedy an extensive backlog of food stamp applications Monday, but Lee County is one of of the few counties in the state to clear the hurdle at least a week in advance.

The Lee County Department of Social Services reported all of its residents’ Food and Nutrition Service applications were current as of Feb. 3, compared to the more than 5,500 expedited and regular cases not current statewide during the same time frame.

North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos told state legislators Tuesday that her department was able to clear the backlog of more than 20,000 applications and renewals by the United States Department of Agriculture's Monday deadline, when the USDA threatened to withhold more than $80 million in funding if the state’s backlog was not addressed.

“What has happened is we have processing time standards for both expedited cases, which must be addressed in seven days, and standard cases, which must be addressed in 30 days,” said Lee County DSS Director Brenda Potts. “The USDA tracks those and holds states accountable. With NC Fast, we've had lots of technical problems.”

NC Fast, which has been dubbed by some of its critics as NC Slow, is a state automated systems for individuals to apply for multiple programs at one time. However, technical glitches and a learning curve have resulted in increased waits for residents seeking food stamps — thus creating a backlog throughout the state.

“Our overtime for Jan. 1, 2013, through June 31, 2013, was 481.25 hours,” Potts said in a report to the Lee County Board of Commissioners. “The overtime hours for just the FNS staff totaled 394 hours for the period of July 1, 2013, until Dec. 31, 2013.”

NC Fast will also be used for Medicaid applications, Potts said, but the state canceled the hard launch for Medicaid that was scheduled for mid-February.

“This is a scary time for staff, as every time the state tweaks the NC Fast system to make changes for Medicaid, it messes up FNS,” she said in the written report.  

The DSS employees are only just barely able to keep their heads above water, she said, but they will not be able to keep up the pace with the existing staff.

Potts is requesting the Lee County Board of Commissioners to approve the hiring of four additional Incomer Maintenance Caseworker II positions for her department during the upcoming commissioner meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at the Lee County Government Center.

“The implementation of NC Fast has created a hardship for the citizens of Lee County, as well as the eligibility workers within Social Services,” Potts wrote in the meeting agenda. “… We have many unknowns in what to expect in Medicaid. We know what the next year is going to look like in what Medicaid will have to do to support provisions in the Affordable Health Care Act,    and we know what HHS expectations are regardless of any problems we have with NC Fast implementation in Medicaid.”

The cost of the additional workers for the remainder of the 2013-2014 fiscal year is $18,383.

Lee County Manager John Crumpton said he's concerned about the number of hours the FNS staff members have worked overtime and, if they are unable to take their compensatory time, the county will begin to see morale concerns.

“The staff has done a great job so far as we keep rolling out the new phases of the project,” he said. “But we are not sure what kind of problems we will face as we get more programs, especially when we get into Medicaid.”

The following counties were 100 percent current with its FNS applications as of Feb. 3:

* Alexander

* Clay

* Gates

* Greene

* Lee

* Lincoln

* Macon

* Polk

* Tyrrell

* Watauga