DOBSON — Faced with an increasing caseload, the director of the county’s Department of Social Services says it’s time to get serious about the fraudulent use of food stamps.
During its meeting Monday night, social services Director Wayne Black told the Surry County Board of Commissioners that his caseload is climbing by leaps and bounds, which means that even a small percentage of fraudulent use can cost big bucks.
Black told the board that last year, his department disbursed $22 million worth of food stamps.
“There may be five percent of that being used fraudulently, but if there is, that amounts to $1.1 million last year,” he said. “If we have that much misuse of benefits in Surry County, we need to do something about it.”
These days, workers are handling what they can in their individual caseloads, but with each worker handling nearly 600 cases, it is impossible to investigate everything.
“I’ve handled a couple of those cases myself, so we’re responding,” Black said. “What I want us to do is be more proactive about it.”
But increasing caseloads are making that difficult.
According to Black, in 1989 his department provided food stamps to just more than 1,600 households.
“Today that number is 7,009,” Black said.
The increased caseload is the result of federal mandates and relaxed regulations related to who qualifies for the entitlements, according to the department head.
Black said that three years ago, then-Gov. Beverly Perdue decided to expand food stamp eligibility by increasing the amount of money a household could make and still qualify. Guidelines to be eligible to receive the benefits increased from 130 percent of the federal poverty level to 200 percent of the poverty level — meaning more county families qualify.
“That means more applicants, and more cases for food stamps,” Black said. “Where do I get the staff to administer it? It’s funded by both the feds and county, and we haven’t received the money to pay additional staff. The federal government mandates, or the state decides to expand these programs and we’re stuck with trying to find the money to administer and staff it.”
Calling the food stamp program the “canary in the coalmine,” Black said the number of households receiving benefits is indicative of the economic downturn.
In 2001, Black’s department had a caseload of 1,602, he told the board.
“But since then, the jobs have left the county and that left lots of folks without work,” he said. “Between 2007 and last year, we increased from 3,780 households to over 7,000. That’s quite an increase.”
The increased caseload hasn’t resulted in much more staff, Black said.
“It has been challenging and continues to be challenging,” he said. “We’ve finally had to take our full-time fraud investigator and give them 1,200 cases to handle.”
A New Dawn
But that doesn’t mean the social services director has forgotten about fraud.
Black said plans are in place for a new, more aggressive approach to handling misuse of the benefits.
“I want to do community awareness and begin to work with retailers to ensure program integrity,” he said. “We also want to encourage anyone who sees fraudulent use of food stamps to report it. We’ll respond to it.”’
Without additional staff, Black is counting on the use of a more efficient document and caseload management system to free up workers to investigate fraud.
Known as NC-FAST, for “families accessing services through technology,” the $500,000 system has helped to reduce the staff required to manage the federally-mandated entitlements.
The program started rolling out last spring, and Black said he hopes to have all the bugs ironed out in the next couple of months.
“Once that happens, a single case worker will be able to process multiple benefits and all income maintenance programs will go into it,” he said. “The system itself will allow workers to complete eligibility requirements and manage cases more quickly and efficiently.
“It will be a whole lot more efficient and productive,” Black predicted. “And that will allow us to get our fraud investigator back.”
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.