Food stamps delays now in 9th month
It's starting to sound like a broken record.
Each month, as the Caldwell County Department of Social Services starts to get caught up processing claims for food benefits, setbacks continue to hamper progress. At least 2,000 of the roughly 17,000 Caldwell County citizens depending on food stamps face gaps without benefits that officials say are lasting four to six weeks but that some recipients have said are much longer. Software problems for those seeking certification are creating the delays for clients, who are forced to visit food pantries until their monthly benefits are dispersed.
"I've cried, called and begged," said 27-year-old Tabitha Trivette, who was at Caldwell County Yokefellow, a crisis ministry, recently seeking utility and food assistance for her and her two kids, ages 7 and 4.
Trivette, who has not worked in five years, is a first-time food stamp applicant. She says she applied in June, and was told in July that Social Services lost her paperwork. She then was told her paperwork later turned up in the Medicaid pile, but it would be another two to four months before she received a payment. In August, she said, she was told to expect another two-month delay.
In January, the state began rolling out a new computer system for administering a variety of benefits called NCFAST, with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps, the first to be administered in the system. Since then, clients have waited weeks for money to be put into their benefit accounts. Raleigh sent workers to Lenoir and social services offices across the state to help clear the backlog. Some county employees have been working mandatory six-day work weeks. Just as they began to gain ground, software glitches caused even more clients to experience delays.
Software issues continue to plague the system.
"Most of the glitches have been fixed, but the caveat is there are still things that pop up in NCFAST day to day," said Will Wakefield, adult and family support services program administrator. "We can process an application and enter the necessary data, but when we open the case file, the information could be missing. Then we have to go back in and manually re-enter that information.
"We're kind of seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, but we're working on different strategies to try and figure this out.
"We know people are waiting for benefits, and we know our citizens are frustrated as well."
Adding to the program's woes is the huge debt DSS is trying to collect from over-payment of benefits, 90 percent of which are food stamp claims. More than a $250,000 in over-payments were discovered in Caldwell County alone, of which $75,000 has been recouped through reduction in individual payments or interception of tax returns. A total of 323 cases involved over-payment of benefits, an average of $630 per case. As of yesterday, $203,634 was still uncollected. Wakefield said only a small percentage of the 323 cases involve intentional fraud. A vast majority of overpayments, many of which are old cases dating back many months, are being attributed to "agency errors" or from a client not notifying the agency of a change in income status.
"It's certainly frustrating for our staff who are doing the work, knowing we can't get the work done because of these issues," Wakefield said.
A worker from Raleigh continues to assist Caldwell County. More help will return to assist with Medicaid, which was added to NCFAST this month and is expected to be fully implemented in January.