System meant to speed up services delaying food stamp benefits

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 23, 2013

SALISBURY — A new system designed to speed up services is now causing delays in local residents’ food stamp benefits.
Since October 2012, the Rowan County Department of Social Services has been working with a new automated service delivery system called NC FAST (North Carolina Families Accessing Services Through Technology.)
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Division is rolling out the system statewide, and food and nutrition services is the first program to switch over in Rowan County.
Social Services Director Donna Fayko said the delays should go down significantly when all records have been moved to NC FAST. She expects that to happen next month.
Processing times are now a couple weeks to a couple months longer than normal, Fayko said, depending on the type of case.
“We do have a backlog of reviews, but we are working diligently to bring those down,” she said.
As new applications continue to come in, existing cases must be converted from the old system to the new one. Fayko said the department has cross trained its Medicaid staff to help with that process.
In addition, county commissioners have allowed DSS to hire — using lapsed salaries from vacant positions — seven temporary staff members to help with the conversions.
The county also is allowing the social services department to pay some of its staff overtime for concentrated efforts to make a dent in the backlog.
As of Friday, there were about 800 reviews left from May that still needed processing. Fayko said she hopes to be fully caught up by the end of July.
“Most of our certification periods are for six months, so we should have basic information in our new NC FAST system for the majority of people who might come in for recertification,” she said.
To help meet people’s needs as they wait for their applications to go through, DSS staff members have been holding special fundraisers and food drives to keep the food pantry filled.
Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops have been helping to fill the pantry as well, Fayko said.
“We knew there were going to be delays, so we energized and organized community partners so people would not be going without food,” she said.
Fayko said she met with officials at Rowan Helping Ministries and the local Salvation Army and United Way to explain that more people could be coming their way during the transition.
Kyna Grubb, director of Rowan Helping Ministries, said the organization’s food pantry has seen about a 10 percent increase in people who come to request food.
“This is the time of year when pantries are a little bit barer anyway,” she said. “Last week, we walked in and the shelter was just empty. There’s been a really good community response, and we continue to need that community response.”
Grubb said the shelter has bought some food from Second Harvest Food Bank, but it’s still low on cereals, rice, beans, green beans and corn.
“On the financial side, folks have spent more money on groceries that they traditionally used to pay the power bill,” she said. “Then we’re helping them get those bills paid during this time of unique financial crisis.”
Fayko said NC FAST is intended to streamline the application and recertification processes and make them more accessible to more people in the community.
“Our hope is that eventually when everything is in place, we can provide services the same day,” she said. “But there’s a lot of implementation to get through before we reach that kind of goal.”
Fayko praised her staff for handling the transition well and for learning and applying new computer skills quickly.
Once the nutrition services program has been moved to the new system, other programs like Medicaid, Work First and children’s services will follow starting this fall.

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.