Growing pains at the Scotland County Department of Social Services have resulted in delayed benefits for food stamp recipients since November, and are likely to continue for several months.
The delays were brought on by the implementation of the NC Families Accessing Services through Technology (NC FAST) computer system being implemented in DSS offices in every North Carolina county. NC FAST replaces NC FSIS, a more specialized program that had become expensive to alter and maintain.
“The plan for NC FAST was that the system is going to be agency-wide; we had a food stamp system, we had a Medicaid system, everything was broken up into little systems,” said James McQueen, financial services administrator at Scotland County DSS. “This system was supposed to take all that, put it together, and make it easier for someone who comes in to receive benefits.”
The program is designed to streamline information, so that clients of multiple programs will only have to submit their information once, and that information will be equally accessible to all programs. Yet, since the implementation of NC FAST, many food stamp recipients have seen up to six-week delays in their benefits.
Although staff at Scotland County DSS were unprepared for the conversion, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services implemented NC FAST in Scotland County in November.
“There were three stages of implementation in each county,” McQueen. “They came to us and said we want you to go live on November 13, and we said we’re not prepared for that. We were down two staff, had a couple on medical leave, we said we’re not prepared.”
Most food stamp recipients are required to resubmit income and other documentation every six months in order to recertify their cases with DSS. In order to recertify a case, it must first be converted to the NC FAST system, a process which takes 30 to 45 minutes for each case. When a case is due for recertification, benefits cease until that process is completed.
“We were at one point probably five or six weeks behind in doing recertifications, and there were some individuals that didn’t get benefits for a month, but when we certified them the following month, they got both months’ benefits,” said McQueen. “So they didn’t lose anything in the long run, but it temporarily caused them some major headache.”
With the help of a Generation YZ grant through the Laurinburg-Scotland County Area Chamber of Commerce, DSS has hired five temporary staff members to enter cases into the new system. The agency has currently transferred some 1,850 cases to NC FAST, and those clients currently recertifying can expect a three-week delay in their benefits.
“Our conversion team is getting quicker as they do this, and it’s not just new to them, it’s new to all the staff here, so there is definitely a learning curve,” McQueen said. “I talk with individuals, and they say it only takes you 30 minutes. That may be the case, but I’ve got 6,000 of them. I can’t just pull one case when I have 5,999 others in the same circumstaces.”
McQueen expects that the conversion of all cases to NC FAST will be complete by April or May, and in the meantime, DSS is encouraging clients to seek aid from local food pantries to tide them over while their benefits are delayed.
“We know that this is not just a matter of moving a case, this is feeding a family, and we do referrals to food banks daily to ask for assistance for those individuals,” he said. “We actually met with them before this process started and let them know that there was the potential for this, and that they might beef up their inventory in case it happens. Many individuals come back and say they’ve received assistance.”