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Charlotte Area News

Mecklenburg County Clears Food Stamp Backlog (Again)

Michael Tomsic

Mecklenburg County has done its part in trying to help North Carolina meet a federal deadline to resolve some of the state's longest food stamp delays. The state says it'll announce whether it met Monday's deadline on Tuesday morning. But Mecklenburg County health officials say they've cleared the entire county backlog.

Mecklenburg County cleared its backlog because of people like Darlene Brown-Houston. She's one of the county workers typing through food stamp applications.

"Basically I just go through them, find out the income, how many people are in the household and enter it into the system," she said.

It's an online system called NC FAST, and it's had serious problems since the state made counties start using it in March. As of about three weeks ago, more than 8,000 households had been waiting more than three months to get food stamps.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the food stamp program, and it gave North Carolina a deadline of Monday to get some of its worst food stamp delays under control. That's left state and county employees working around the clock.

"Sometimes I'm here by 7:00," said Brown-Houston, "and I stay until my regular time, which is 5:00. And on Saturdays and Sundays I work the overtime hours that they offer."

Mecklenburg County even created a sort of daycare here so employees working weekends could bring their children.

Rodney Adams is director of the county's Department of Social Services Economics Division. He says call center operators, social workers and other kinds of staff also helped with the backlog.

"These folks did their normal job from 8:00 to 5:00," he said, "and then anytime they spent on overtime was spent solely focusing on getting this one goal attained."

And Adams said it worked – Mecklenburg County has cleared its backlog. But he said this isn't the first time Mecklenburg County staff has worked crazy hours to handle an NC FAST crisis.

Across the state, backlogs have ebbed and flowed since March. NC FAST is supposed to become a sort of one-stop shop for all kinds of public assistance. But whenever the state has tweaked it to get ready for the next thing, it's created more problems.   

John Eller is vice president of the North Carolina Association of County Directors of Social Services. He says Medicaid is the next big piece.

"Pilot counties have been testing the new Medicaid system," he said. "I know anecdotally from those counties they've really struggled. I think they have given some pretty candid feedback to the state about us not being ready for the next phase at this point."

Eller worries that counties have fallen even further behind with Medicaid preparations in their rush to meet the federal deadline on food stamps.

And that rush may not have been enough. The state will announce Tuesday morning whether every county met the deadline. If not, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will issue a formal warning that's one step closer to taking away the state's administrative funding for the program.