04/04/14 — Most food stamp cases resolved

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Most food stamp cases resolved

By Steve Herring
Published in News on April 4, 2014 1:46 PM

North Carolina "kind of, sort of, almost got it done" in its attempt to meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Monday deadline to clear its backlog of food stamp applications or face the possible loss of $80 million in federal funds, said Debbie Jones, director of the Wayne County Department of Social Services.

As of Tuesday, state officials said that all but 375 cases had been cleared.

Whether that will be enough to convince USDA not to withdraw funding remains to be seen, Ms. Jones said.

"Everybody is waiting, waiting, waiting," she said. "Wayne County is doing great. We are up to date and trying hard to stay that way.

"We are good, but we worked the staff to death."

But what still worries Ms. Jones, and other DSS directors across the state, is a looming requirement to add Medicaid recipients to the same troubled software system that caused the food stamp backlog to begin with.

The loss of the $80 million, or about $6.7 million monthly, would cost Wayne County as much as $100,000 monthly in federal reimbursements.

That is not money that goes to the clients, rather it pays one-half of the county's administrative costs to operate the food stamp program.

Should the money be lost, the county would have two options -- make up the difference or cut employees.

The reimbursements are paid quarterly and USDA has yet to pay for October, November and December, Ms. Jones said.

"They want clarification on why the amount of worker time escalated so much," she said.

The problem has been a troubled-plagued software system that was more time-consuming than the older system.

Ms. Jones said overtime was only used to try to get done what she felt had to be done to accomplish the job. That included calling on employees who work with Medicaid to help out with food stamps.

Even then, the 25 employees who worked to clear the backlog each put in approximately 60 hours of overtime for a total of nearly 1,600 hours.

No overtime has been paid. The employees have been taking time off to make up for the overtime hours, she said.

Food stamp applications were the first to be added to the North Carolina Families Assessing Services through Technologies (NCFAST) software system.

Medicaid was to have been added in March, but has been pushed back to as yet an undecided date, she said.

The idea was to streamline and speed up the process by only having to input data once that could then be used for other programs including Medicaid.

"We embraced the idea of streamlined eligibility processes and of the promise that NCFAST would speed the delivery of benefits to our most vulnerable citizens," Tammy Schrener, president of the N.C. Association of County Directors of Social Services, wrote in a letter to Dr. Aldona Wos, Department of Health and Human Services secretary. "Counties welcomed the promises of improved reporting and internal process management in a time of budget constraints that continue to pressure county and state governments. The reality of NCFAST for almost two years has proven to be a stark contrast to those promises."

County DSS offices are spending the majority of their time and resources trying to navigate system defects, she wrote.

In fact, the system was off-line Sunday and did not work properly on Monday until a software patch could be developed and implemented.

"We find ourselves with a system that has workarounds, defects, and system issues which results in an ever-increasing backlog of cases," she wrote. "As a result, benefits to citizens are often delayed. Every day in our counties we see real examples of citizens unable to access medical services and needed prescriptions. This places vulnerable citizens at risk and compromises the stability of our health care system."

It also raises "significant" concerns about adding Medicaid to the system, she wrote.

"We fear the impact this will have on both the state and local health care economy as it relates to Medicaid authorization and reimbursement for healthcare providers (i.e. hospitals, pharmacies, nursing/assisted living facilities, etc...)," she said in the letter. "We are hearing from consumers that they are not receiving needed medical care because their NCFAST case is not showing up in NCTRACKS.

"This will also impact public safety regarding risks related to lack of mental health, emergency Medicaid authorizations, public health, medical transportation, and jail health services."

Ms. Jones shares those feelings.

"That is my fear," she said. "I have said that all along. Just because you qualify for one program does not mean that you qualify for another. We still have to put all of it (information) into NCFAST.

"The regulations are different. It is just incredibly frustrating. We pulled people out of Medicaid to work on food stamps and that is going to catch up with us."