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Feds warn NC about process time for food stamps

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Universal caseworkers are logging overtime hours, but still scrambling to keep up with a backlog of applications. Universal caseworkers are logging overtime hours, but still scrambling to keep up with a backlog of applications.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) – Caseworkers at New Hanover County's Department of Social Services have logged more than 3,000 hours of overtime since the start of NC Fast, but there is still a backlog of processed paperwork.

"There are people who are waiting months for services they are eligible for," said Christine McNamee, Assistant Director for Economic Maintenance.

She said caseworkers are doing everything they can to serve the community, but there are some problems that are out of their control. According to a letter from the state Department of Health and Human Services, the federal government wants a decrease in the time it takes to process paperwork.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) warned the state that agencies need to maintain standards for applications and recertifications in order to avoid a possible cut in federal funds.

McNamee said the federal government covers close to half of the county's DSS budget, and this warning is the first she's heard of during her time with the department.

"We're trying to put this on a fast track," she said. "We do understand that this is a problem."

Part of the problem is difficulties with the NC Fast system, according to McNamee. A constant need to log out then back in to the system several times in just one application makes a 20-30 minute task into an hour-long ordeal.

"It could take you several hours because you have to keep logging out then back in again," said McNamee.

Top ten frustrations

The problem is number one on the county's top ten list of frustrations with NC Fast. Every other county that made a similar list shared them so that a master list could be passed on to the state for consideration.

Meanwhile, the state continues to train caseworkers on new programs that will be added to NC Fast, like Medicaid, Work First and Child Care. McNamee said the training is a must, but it takes time away from caseworkers' daily duties.

More than 10% of the departments staff will be busy with training during a two-week period in January. McNamee said it's up to the other workers in the agency to pick up the slack.

"One day of overtime is not going to make up for two weeks of training," she said. "We're going to be short-staffed that whole two weeks."

Still training

There are several programs still to be added to the NC Fast system, which means more training and more slack. Twelve caseworkers have resigned since the start of NC Fast in July 2012.

"We're not going to have total control for what looks like a couple years now," McNamee said. "We're going have to rethink how we're doing this."

The state has paid to provide technical training to a few employees and even sent three tech support people to work in the agency's building, but McNamee said there's still a need for resources that she hopes that county can fill.

"This isn't going to be a quick fix," she said. "It's not something where we can hold everything together for five or six months and be fine. We're going to have to be prepared for the long haul."

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