The state Department of Health and Human Services is racing to meet a Monday deadline to clear a backlog of thousands of food stamps cases, but the benefits system that distributes the food assistance will be shut down over much of the weekend.
The N.C. FAST (Families Accessing Services through Technology) system will be shutting down at 3 p.m. Saturday for scheduled maintenance to update federal poverty guidelines for a separate April 1 deadline the state is facing, according to DHHS communications staff.
The system was initially scheduled to go down at noon but was pushed back to 3 p.m. in order to allow counties more time to tackle backlogged cases.
It’s unclear if it will be enough time, with staff in Guilford County contending with a recently realized 3,000 to 8,000 backlog of pending food stamps recertification cases.
Several of those families, including those like Melanie Richards, have been waiting months for benefits, and have turned to food banks or are faced with bare cupboards.
Richards, who contacted N.C. Policy Watch Friday, said she’s been waiting since January for Guildford County to recertify her food stamps, and used money earmarked in her limited budget for gas and housing to buy food for herself and her four children.
“I’m about to lose my place, using money I don’t have for food,” Richards said. “I don’t know how I’m going to pay anything for April.”
The scheduled shutdown of the NC FAST system tomorrow creates another challenge for the state agency to meet a Monday deadline set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to clear a backlog of food stamps cases that had persisted through most of last year. At risk is $88 million in funding the state receives from USDA for monitoring the food stamps program.
The sudden discovery on Wednesday of 3,000 to 8,000 pending certifications in Guilford County put Monday’s deadline, which the state thought it was otherwise on track to meet, in question.
The troubled roll-out of the state’s new benefits delivery system last year resulted in delays for thousands of North Carolina families waiting for emergency food assistance. USDA officials, which oversee the distribution of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ) sent several warnings that the North Carolina problems needed to be resolved before a strongly-worded January letter that told N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos that it may rescind administrative funding to the state.
“Citizens of North Carolina that need help putting food on the table are not receiving the basic level of responsiveness and quality of service that they deserve from their government,” a USDA official wrote in a January letter  to Wos.
Guilford County Manger Marty Lawing said the social services division informed him this week that it had a backlog of thousands of cases that hadn’t been logged into the NC FAST system. He estimated that backlog to be around 3,000, down from earlier estimates of 8,100 cases, though he added that concrete case load information was not available.
“The primary focus now is to get as many cases reviewed as we can,” Lawing said.
The county will launch an internal investigation next week as to what led to the previously unknown backlog.
Lawing said the scheduled shut-down for the NC FAST system is an added challenge.
“We’ll do the best we can with the time we have,” Lawing said.
Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Greensboro Democrat, said was upset to hear about the situation in Guilford County, and the slow response over the last several months to deal with the issues N.C. FAST has had distributing food stamps.
“It’s still a very ineffective system,” Robinson said about N.C. FAST.
She also said the mishandling of the food stamps has left her and fellow Democrats asking for a change of leadership at DHHS.
“We’re very tired and frustrated and we’ve expressed that,” Robinson said. “The governor needs to take responsibility. It’s at their level, the citizens are suffering.”