Keith Strange Staff Reporter
January 23, 2014
DOBSON — Problems with the software program designed to make access to food stamps more efficient have resulted in delays for thousands of households receiving benefits across the state, but things aren’t much easier for Surry County Social Services workers.
According to Kristy Preston, county social services director, workers are also feeling pressure trying to provide much-needed benefits to county workers.
And the software problems are so pervasive that county workers can’t even say with certainty how many Surry County households are affected.
While Preston has said previously that “between 100 and 150” families are awaiting benefits, she said software problems with the program — dubbed NCFAST (North Carolina Families Accessing Services through Technology) — she said a concrete number is unknown at this point.
“One of the big challenges with NCFAST has been the reporting aspect,” Preston said. “We’ve always had really accurate data to let us know at any time how many cases are pending and how many are running late or overdue. With NCFAST, we don’t have that reporting capability.”
A report received Thursday illustrates her point, Preston said.
“I received a report from NCFAST this morning and looked at the numbers and I don’t have any faith in their accuracy,” she said. “When you look at the report from across the state, the numbers don’t look right. It puts us in a bad position.”
But Preston said she had rather keep on keeping on than dwell on trying to rectify inaccurate numbers.
“It’s one of those situations where the supervisors can work on running down the correct numbers or work on problems with the system,” she said. “We’re working on processing cases as fast as we can to get the benefits out to the people who need them. I don’t want to put time and energy into working on what’s wrong with the reports.”
An encoded spiral
Getting benefits out to clients can sometimes be a monumental task itself, however.
Problems with the software can sometimes result in delays of weeks or even months for families trying to get food on the table, Preston said.
“The way the system (NCFAST) is set up, if the worker has a straightforward case and enters it into the system and there’s a problem in the system with the coding or other software issues with the application, the system will not accept it,” she said. “The workers know when the system isn’t calculating it correctly, but they can’t do anything about it. They have to call support in Raleigh and have them work on it.”
Which is where the delays come into play, Preston said.
“For a food and nutrition worker who should be able to process an application in 15 minutes, if there’s a problem with the system it can take them a half-day to process it,” she said.
Once in Raleigh’s hands, the problem is often kicked up the support chain, Preston added.
“If they can help us on the phone, they will, but if they can’t there’s a ‘tier system’ in place where we have to submit the problem and they work on it,” she said. “But for some families, the problems are big issues where NCFAST (support) is going to have to work on it and it can take quite a while.”
In the interim, Preston said local caseworkers are doing everything they can to help those in need.
“We’ve tried to intervene when we can and help them secure food through food banks, and we’re trying to mitigate the crisis situations when we come upon them, but it’s really slow going,” she said.
And at the moment, there is little light at the end of the tunnel for either workers or needy families.
“We don’t have any time frame on when (the problems) are going to be worked out,” said Preston. “I think everyone is tired of this problem. We have workers who aren’t accustomed to overdue reviews or applications. They’ve never had them and to be in this situation is demoralizing. It’s a challenge. We have 7,000 families in Surry County receiving benefits.
“Our workers are very knowledgeable about social services programs, so it’s kind of a ‘hurry up and wait’ situation,” she added. “We hurry to get the information into the computer and wait until it works. It’s very frustrating. Caseworkers are caseworkers because they want to help people, and in this situation they can’t do anything. It’s hard.”
But Preston said she has faith the bugs will eventually be worked out.
“But we have to get there,” she said. “For us to manage the volume of cases we’re going to be dependent on some kind of (computer) program, but we’re going to have to continue to work with the state to get it worked out.”
Reach Keith Strange at email@example.com or 719-1929.