Some food stamp applicants still face long waits

Nov. 07, 2013 @ 08:11 AM

Although local social services officials say they are caught up with what had been a backlog of approving food stamp re-applications, for some people who are applying for the benefits first time, getting approved can still be a long ordeal.

One person, a 26-year-old woman who spoke to the News-Topic on the condition that her name not be used, said she applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program on July 1 but has yet to learn whether she even qualifies for benefits. She, her husband and their two children, ages 6 and 4, get by on food from a church-run food bank. She said she most recently checked on the progress of her application with the local Department of Social Services two weeks ago.

"They told me they were having problems initiating new applications because of delays with the new program," she said.  It's now been four months and five days."

That new program is NCFAST, a computerized system for administering a variety of benefits. It began to be used in January first for food stamp benefits. A backlog quickly developed in processing cases in which people reapplied for benefits, and computer glitches exacerbated it. In September the state had counties send their remaining backlogged cases, including 1,415 in Caldwell County, to Raleigh for processing.

But a small percentage of new food stamp applications "still get hung up in the system" and take much longer than they are supposed to, said Will Wakefield,  adult and family services program administrator at the Caldwell County Department of Social Services. He said he didn't know exactly how often that happens, officials field phone calls from unhappy folks.

"We will get some phone calls from someone who is upset, and some who are waiting a long time," he said. "Certainly there are people who have had to wait because they are stuck in the system."

Typically, new food stamp applications are approved or denied within 30 days, Wakefield said. Even before NCFAST, problems occasionally popped up that slowed that process, but because of the problems related to NCFAST, it has been harder to meet the program's normal time standards. When local efforts to resolve a complaint are fruitless, Raleigh steps in to assist.

"We have to put in help tickets with the state and wait for them to get fixed," Wakefield said. "We have been able to keep reviews timely for the most part, but it is a fine line and we may run a couple of days late one week and jump back ahead the next."

Complicating the process is the addition of Medicaid to NCFAST, which adds another layer of paperwork.

"Without Medicaid, we could be making great strides with food stamps," Wakefield added.