LUMBERTON — The Robeson County Department of Social Services will be able to comply with the demand of federal regulators that North Carolina counties erase a backlog of outstanding food stamp applications, according to the director of the local program.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is requiring that county social services offices in North Carolina resolve by March 31 applications waiting longer than 30 days and emergency requests for assistance waiting longer than seven days.
The state has asked that backlogs be eliminated at county social services offices by March 21, which is Friday, in plenty of time for counties to meet the federal deadline, according to Anthony Dial, the Robeson County DSS administrator overseeing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps.
Dial said that there are 79 Food and Nutrition applications pending. Thirty-seven of the applications are emergency requests that have been waiting longer than seven days. Forty-two of the applications should have been handled in 30 days, with three of those applications containing issues that can be addressed only in Raleigh, Dial said.
“The 76 cases we can handle. We’re working on them,” Dial said. “But keeping caught up is the big problem. We review 1,800 to 2,000 cases of food stamp and Medicaid applications each and every month.”
Already the state met a U.S. Department of Agriculture Feb. 10 deadline to handle more than 20,000 applications and renewals that were pending for more than 90 days. If the state had not met the deadline it would have lost about $88 million in federal money used in administering the food stamp program.
Robeson County, like the state’s other 99 counties, has been struggling for months to catch up with the processing of applications. Last summer, county case workers began to use a new computer system upgrade, NC FAST, to determine eligibility for food stamps. The backlog of applications increased later after the NC FAST system also began being used for determining eligibility for Medicaid benefits based on new income thresholds.
“There continues to be glitches in the system,” Dial said. “Almost every day something happens. This week the system was down for a half day, leaving about 120 employees without the ability to key cases into NC FAST.”
According to Dial, to keep caught up with new food stamp and Medicaid cases, as well as cases that are up for review, requires 150 workers to work significant hours of overtime. Since last month, some employees are working Saturdays. Also since the state decided to keep the NC FAST system up and running from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays, and some Saturdays, some employees are coming to work early and others staying late to use the system at a time when it is running faster because it is not getting so much use.
‘The staff can’t keep doing this forever,” Dial said. “They are going to eventually burn out.”
During the height of the change over to NC FAST, some county food stamp recipients were as many as three months behind in receiving their benefits. To help these recipients and other emergency cases, DSS established an emergency food bank. In some emergency cases recipients received vouchers to help purchase food.
“Last month Campbell Soup donated about 4,000 pounds of food to our food bank,” Dial said. “The county commissioners also recently donated $10,000 — $5,000 for vouchers and $5,000 to purchase food.”