ABC11 Investigates

ABC11 Troubleshooter investigates problems in state's food stamp program

Friday, January 31, 2014

There have been problems for months with North Carolina's food stamp program. Thousands of people waiting weeks and going hungry because the state's computer system, which is known as NCFAST, is anything but fast.

ABC11 I-Team Troubleshooter Diane Wilson actually helped dozens of people get their overdue aid, but since the problem isn't going away, she decided to go undercover and get some answers.

It doesn't seem to be getting better. We've profiled people who've been victimized by the computer glitch multiple times. Now, the feds are threatening to withhold millions of dollars if DHHS doesn't get their act together.

An I-Team undercover encounter with an insider within the system cast more doubts on whether that's even possible.

"You can't do your job," said a worker.

This worker says what the I-Team has been hearing over the past year -- that the switch to NCFAST has actually been slow and painful.

"Can't get work done, which is very frustrating," said the worker.

The worker agreed to speak out, but didn't want to be identified. The worker says the main problems with NCFAST are a lack of training, and the computer program itself.

"There's bugs/defects," said the worker. "They actually send a list of known defects and we know about this. We're working on it. Thank you for your patience."

The worker says it's taking a toll on the state's front-line employees.

"High stress levels, sickness, illnesses," said the worker.

But even more frustrating is hearing from families who have to keep waiting and going hungry, like Kelly Swanson.

"My kid's crying on the way here she's hungry. 'Mommy I'm hungry,'" said Swanson.

We've profiled Swanson twice now. She's a single mom of two young girls who waited five months for back benefits until we got involved last summer. However, she fell out of the computer system again when she later had to recertify. So we helped her again, but we also sent her in with an undercover camera to Wake County's Department of Health and Human Services to document the difference between what some families are being told and what the public's being told.

Female worker at check-in counter: "All benefits at Wake County are delayed."

Swanson: "For how long?"

Worker:  "We don't have a time frame."  

Swanson doesn't give up, she waits for a case worker.

Woman: "We are two months behind and working overtime trying to get this done."

When asked when Swanson could see her food stamps, the worker replied, "I don't know, that's what I'm saying, just check your card daily. That's what I'm telling my clients. I don't know, because we're behind."

They are behind weeks in most cases we've heard despite what the state's Director of Social Services, Wayne Black assured us in September.

"If they have their documentation, our goal is to get those benefits the same day when they walk out the door and if not, we mean to do it in 2 or 3 days or a week," said Black last fall.

Black also told us DHHS was working overtime and hiring 160 new staffers to help with the backlog.  

So we went back to him this week to find out why qualified food stamp recipients are still going hungry and why the federal government is now threatening to cut off millions of dollars meant for North Carolina.

"Our state has worked very hard. Our counties have worked very hard," said Black. "It's a challenge to meet the requirements and to get caught up. We continue to try and do that."

Black says to meet the USDA's deadline of Feb. 10 they now have yet another new plan to work through the backlog of food benefits cases.

"We're setting up 11 processing centers," said Black. "This is a sort of a hybrid between sending our technical experts out to 100 counties or bringing in the records into Raleigh to help the counties with the cases."

Plus, Black says county workers will be able to work over the weekend getting through the backlog.  

While the state continues to say things are getting better and a fix for NCFAST is in the works, we continue to hear from people going hungry.

There is good news for at least one family who was hungry, Swanson and her two girls. Not only did an ABC11 viewer help with groceries, but she finally got her benefits from the state.  

But the bad news, thousands of people are still waiting just in Wake County alone. More than 3,000 people are in need of their food benefits. More than 1,000 of those have been waiting more than four months.

Meanwhile, big deadlines are coming up for NCFAST.

State representatives tell me they are confident they'll meet those deadlines, but I should warn you, even meeting those deadlines, people still could be waiting a few months for food stamps. The main goal is to clear those expedited cases first, and then those applications who have been waiting more than four months.  

So those people who fall in between that could still be waiting for several more weeks, if not months.

If the state doesn't meet those deadlines, the fed's could cut off $88 million in funding as soon as March 12.

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north carolina news, abc11 troubleshooter, wake county news, abc11 investigates, diane wilson
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