Food stamps problem expected to be fixed by April

Jan. 18, 2014 @ 12:00 AM

RALEIGH — The North Carolina agency responsible for tracking food stamp benefits expects to catch up on a big backlog created by a problematic computer system in about two and a half months.

The state Department of Health and Human Services said told the U.S. Agriculture Department this week it would catch up on the backlog by the end of March. The USDA last month threatened to cut federal funding for food stamps over the backlog and state officials' failure to provide adequate responses.

New figures DHHS released Friday say the agency has culled thousands of duplicate applications from its list of people waiting more than a month for food stamp benefits processed through the agency's NC FAST computer system, which was supposed to speed up the process. The backlog is down from more than 30,000 cases at the start of the month to less than 24,000 cases, the agency said.

Because of the number of redundant applications in the computer system, the figures don't reflect the number of families waiting for benefits, DHHS said in a letter to state legislative leaders.

"What we're finding is that all those applications don't necessarily represent a person who is going hungry," DHHS spokeswoman Julie Henry said.

Delays with NC FAST began after a software update went out July 15, leading to backlogs in the counties that handled the applications, according to officials. Counties also determined NC FAST didn't work well with a certain Internet browser.

The state agency also is still working through problems with the Medicaid billing system called NC Tracks, which came online in July. An error with NC Tracks led the agency this month to send Medicaid cards for nearly 49,000 children to the wrong addresses. The cards contained private medical information that is supposed to be closely safeguarded including the children's names, Medicaid identification numbers, dates of birth and the names of their primary care doctors. Under federal law, the state could face substantial fines for mistakenly releasing it.

Democrats have called for Gov. Pat McCrory to replace DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos. The Republican governor has stood by his embattled secretary, a wealthy Greensboro doctor and major GOP fundraiser who served as the U.S. ambassador to Estonia.