N.C.'s troubled benefits system expanding to Medicaid

Aug. 16, 2013 @ 08:37 AM

A statewide online system being blamed for delays in food benefits soon will expand to include Medicaid in its services.

Starting Sept. 9, social services departments across the state will add new Medicaid applications to NCFAST, which is intended to expedite processing of various government benefits for those who qualify. In January, the department will begin processing annual reviews for Medicaid recipients.

It is hoped that claims for a variety of benefits eventually will be synchronized so that each person who has to refile for benefits will do so at the same time for all benefits, making it easier on clients and staff. The Caldwell County Department of Social Services is also changing the way it processes claims, moving from a call center system, in which clients' claims are processed on a first-come, first-served basis, to a case management system, in which each staff member will handle a certain number of clients. Social services moved away from case management in 2011 due to increasing numbers of clients and the additional workload placed on staff. The switch back to case management is being made because it eases the process for clients by assigning just one case worker to assist with that person's benefits.

"We felt like this will be a better model to provide the service from our staff, and for our clients," said Joyce Edwards, Caldwell County's social services director.

But first, the kinks still need to be worked out in how NCFAST handles food benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, which was the first program added to NCFAST in January. Since then, clients have waited up to two months for money to be put into their benefit accounts. Five workers from Raleigh came to Lenoir to help clear the backlog in Caldwell County, and some employees have been on mandatory six-day work weeks to assist -- in May and June, more than $15,000 in overtime had been paid -- but then some software updates to the NCFAST system created new problems. Two Raleigh workers are still in the county helping clear the backlog.

"There were some major fixes with the software this past weekend, as the mid-July updates had set us back," said Will Wakefield, adult and family support services program administrator. "We are still at a two-and-a-half-week lag."

Edwards said that backlogs and delays have been a problem in every county.

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall has authorized 160 hiring new employees across the state, with at least one full-time staffer in each county (paid by the state), to assist with the Medicaid rollout. Currently in Caldwell County, 15,874 residents, or just shy of 20 percent of the overall population, are Medicaid-eligible. After Oct. 1, another 700 are expected to be added to the list as the Health Insurance Marketplace, also known as the Affordable Insurance Exchange, is implemented as part of national health reform. Consumers and small businesses in North Carolina will be able to apply online for health coverage through the Marketplace.

In the meantime, clients are encouraged to turn in their information on time and online. And to be patient.

Next year, if everything goes smoothly, the state will begin to add child care, emergency assistance and Work First welfare benefits to NCFAST, Edwards said.

"I am reasssured (by Raleigh) that there will be more of an effort put into NCFAST," Edwards said. "They've heard loud and clear from the counties."