ELIZABETHTOWN — The food stamp program in Bladen County is operating on a new computer system, and the expectations are that it will help to streamline the entire process.
The N.C. FAST system launched in December and has been making steady progress towards improving the services offered by the Bladen County Department of Social Services, said Director Vickie Smith.
“It's a change in the way we do business,” said Smith.
In the past, folks have had to come in and spend several hours seeing a case worker for each program they have an interest in, said Smith. Now with N.C. FAST, the client meets with one case worker and their information is entered into the system. Once all of the necessary information and documentation is entered, the client will immediately know of all the programs they may be eligible for and in some cases how much they are eligible to receive, said Smith.
The new system is completely paperless and any supporting documents such as social security cards, birth certificates or pay stubs, can be electronically scanned into the system where each case worker can view them anytime they are working with a client, said Smith.
“The system is coming on in phases,” said Smith.
The phases include:
— Food and Nutrition is already up and running;
— Medicaid which is set to launch later;
— Childcare, LIAPP, and CIP;
— Children's Services, Foster Care and Child Protective Services;
— Aging and Adult Services will launch last.
The system is also not without its glitches.
The system began taking applications for food stamps in August 2012 before launching about four months later. Smith said some applicants did report problems with their EBT cards. She said they encourage all their customers to call the number when their receive their new EBT card and verify the balance on it before using it.
Also, Smith said while the staff is learning the new system, customers have been experiencing some increased wait times, delays in benefits, and at times folks can expect to have difficulty communicating with staff who are in training sessions.
Smith said that the state Department of Health and Human Services has developed a “help desk” to aid local agencies with difficult cases and other problems that arise with the new system.
Currently, Bladen County has 18 cases at the “help desk” which the state is reviewing, according to Smith.
“We've also got a worker (from the state DHHS) here this week reviewing our trouble cases,” said Smith.
“We've experienced glitches just like every other county in the state,” said DHHS Director Chris Harrelson. “State DSS is working 24/7 to try and fix the bugs in the system.”
Smith added that Bladen County was fortunate, as other counties across the region have as many as 100 cases pending at the “help desk.”
Smith said N.C. FAST is not the only change occurring. She added there are still more changes looming on the horizon.
“The Affordable Care Act starts in October. In order to access health care, they will have to come in and apply for Medicaid and then if they are not qualified they can go to a private company,” said Smith.
Also, the state has the new E-PASS system online where folks can apply from the comfort of home or anywhere they have Internet access for the E-PASS food stamp system.