LUMBERTON — A new system designed to expedite the receipt of assistance from the Department of Social Services could cause an initial delay in food and nutrition benefits, county officials said this week.
“We don’t want to cause a panic,” said Anthony Dial, program director for economic services. “But we want to tell people to stockpile food or otherwise prepare in case they are delayed.”
Case workers at the Robeson County Department of Social Services will begin working on Nov. 13 to convert the 23,000 case files of county food stamp recipients to the new program, NC FAST, according to Becky Morrow, the director of the DSS. It was a date chosen by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which is requiring that all counties in the state adopt the new filing system, she said.
Robeson is among 20 counties that will be implementing the program this month, according to Morrow. She said that counties where the program was first installed reported delays as long as two months, but she called that a “worse-case scenario.”
“We know that they’re going to be delayed,” Morrow said. “We don’t know how long they are going to be delayed, but we’re going to try everything we can to try to prevent any further delay than there has to be.”
NC FAST will assign one caseworker per family, making it easier to group benefits that a family receives into a more accessible file, according Morrow. Conversion of Food and Nutrition case files is only the first phase; other forms of assistance should all be on board by 2013. While the program will eventually make the department an electronic “one-stop shop,” the transfer and consolidation of cases will take some time, she said.
Morrow said people applying for benefits can avoid extended delays by having needed paperwork ready.
“It’s very important that they turn it in in a timely manner and turn all the information that they need to turn in when they turn in the review form, and that will speed up the process,” she said. “The faster they can turn in the information that they need, the faster their case can be put through the system.”
According to Morrow, the department has been approved to hire 15 temporary workers to assist with the transfer of cases and to help the department handle an average of 45 new food and nutrition cases that come in per day, which will also have to be input into the NC FAST system.
“We are preparing for it as best as we can,” she said.
Morrow voiced a concern for those who already rely on food stamps, saying they would be the ones “most affected.” The county issues about $6.5 million worth of food stamps each month, and is projected to issue almost $80 million this year. That represents about an 85 percent increase in the last four years, part of which is blamed on the economy and part of which is because of loosened eligibility requirements.
She said the department will be placing calls to local charities to ask for their help.
“It’s really going to take the community to pull together to help people in need,” Morrow said.