Problems delay NC food assistance program - WNCN: News, Weather

Problems delay NC food assistance program

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A backlog with the NC FAST program is leaving some people all over the state without food. A backlog with the NC FAST program is leaving some people all over the state without food.
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -

A state program intended to improve the way people get social services is experiencing a backlog that is leaving some people all over the state without food.

Brenda Jackson, director of Cumberland County's Department of Social Services, estimated there were 350 people waiting on overdue food stamps two weeks ago. Late last week, the department worked that backlog down to 130.

Eleanor Raines of Fayetteville is one of the people still waiting for food stamps. She expected the benefit on Aug.11.

"If I didn't need the system, I wouldn't use the system. But I need the system," Raines said.

She said she lost her job in a massive layoff nearly three years ago. Her husband's health declined and the bills started piling up. They've turned to food stamps to help.

"My husband is sick. He needs nutrition, he needs nourishment," Raines said. "I can't take care of him and get him well because I don't have food to do so."

She has a little frozen meat and vegetables, and almost nothing in her refrigerator and cabinets. Most of it came from a charity food pantry.

The backlog started after a mid-July expansion of the NC FAST (Families Accessing Services through Technology) system. The system has rolled out statewide since November.

Food stamps was the first program integrated into the system.

In July, the system was updated to begin integrating Medicaid. That caused a few glitches, and it also took several days of training for employees to learn about the upgrades.

While one-third of employees were in training at a time, the other social services employees could not keep up with the normal workload of processing claims.

"[It was the] learning curve, the new system, some computer glitches, taking some staff online to learn the new system -- just a combination of things," Jackson said.

She said employees have been working overtime on some nights and some Saturdays since the system began. Twenty temporary employees also helped the county's social services department keep up with getting claims into the system.

Even the temporary help could not prevent a backlog in July, Jackson said.

Last week two state specialists came it to provide hands-on assistance to employees having trouble with NC FAST. That help reduced the backlog to about 130 people, Jackson said. Two more state specialists began helping this week.

"We may be a little burned out, but we are going to keep moving forward and pushing forward," Jackson said.

Jackson said the staff realizes the delays are hard on people who need and deserve social services benefits. However, she believes NC FAST will ultimately be embraced by people who use the system.

"At the end of the day, when we get finished with this complete transition of folding all the programs into NC FAST, it's a better day for citizens," Jackson said. "While it may not feel like that to our citizens right now, give us a few months, and they're going to love this system because it's about improving our service delivery to them."

For Raines it is still frustrating. She still cannot be sure of when her delay will be resolved.

"It wouldn't be so bad if they could give you an answer -- tell you something other than, 'I don't know. I don't know,' or, 'We're working on it. We're working on it.' That is not a satisfactory answer to me," Raines said.

Jackson estimated that the extra help from state specialist will clear the backlog by the end of the week. She says other delays may come up again as NC FAST expands for more programs.

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Brandon Herring

Brandon is a North Carolina native and UNC alum who lives in Fayetteville, and covers Cumberland County and the Sandhills. Returning to North Carolina to work as a journalist is a dream come true for Brandon. More>>

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