Electronic program meant to speed up applications for state benefits is riddled with problems and delays.
by Burwell Stark
RALEIGH — Although the name was intended to play off the ability of families to access state services quickly and remotely, Wake County commissioners learned Sept. 3 that implementation of the NC FAST program has been anything but swift.
NC FAST, a statewide electronic case management system, stands for North Carolina Families Accessing Services through Technology and, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services website, “is designed to improve the way NC DHHS and the 100 county departments of social services conduct business.”
It was designed to help eliminate duplication from the existing system. In the past, for example, an individual would need to see multiple case workers to apply for different benefits. Under NC FAST, the individual or family applying for benefits would only have to apply once for any and all benefits they may qualify for, and in turn, be verified once.
But commissioners heard of numerous problems from Liz Scott, assistant division director of Wake County Human Services, who specifically addressed the Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) aspect of the program.
FNS is administered under the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is designed to “serve low income individuals and families.” FNS was the first program to roll out under NC FAST. According to Scott, some of the very things that are supposed to make FAST speedy are actually slowing it down.
The program is being phased in across North Carolina on a rolling implementation to the 100 counties. NC FAST began implementing electronic applications in May 2012 with pilot counties; as it moves across the state, counties are brought online in groups.
Each group begins with taking electronic applications under the new system, which is known as a “soft launch,” and works to bring all programs under the system after a period of time.
Wake County was not a pilot county and began taking applications under the new system in October of last year. By February, all FNS cases were converted into NC FAST.
One of the features of the NC FAST program is the Electronic Pre-Assessment Screening Service, or ePASS, system which allows individuals and families to apply online for benefits without having to visit their local department of social services.
The ePASS system is part of the reason NC FAST’s implementation is being delayed as departments are adjusting to the new electronic system. Additionally, the ePASS applications take longer as more data is required than previously.
According to literature presented by Scott, another cause for delay are system glitches. As of the time of her presentation, 41 NC FAST defects had been identified. While the majority had been addressed through system patches, 14 remain. North Carolina sends out weekly “work arounds” in order to aid the counties.
Lastly, one of the largest delays is the steep learning curve for the staff. Wake County has hired many temporary workers to assist in the implementation, but they need to be trained along with the county employees. Permanent county employees are also working mandatory overtime in order to aid in the implementation.
Wake County included $1.8 million in its fiscal year 2014 budget to support NC FAST implementation for line items such as temporary staff, overtime and extra technology support.
Towards the end of the presentation, Commissioner James West expressed concern that the delays in the NC FAST implementation would hinder needy individuals from receiving the assistance they need.
Scott replied that providing assistance was her top priority and that the department was working hard and making adjustments so that every applicant can get the help they qualify for.
From FAST to transit
In addition to learning about NC FAST, commissioners heard from county manager David Cooke about the county’s transit strategies and the counties draft transit plan.
According to Cooke, due to questions being raised by the Board of Commissioners and the Regional Transportation Alliance (RTA), the county plans to “suspend what the solutions for transit should be” for Wake County.
Previously, some of the proposed solutions were light rail, commuter rail, rapid bus transit and expanded bus transit.
Instead, Cooke recommended that the board establish “a panel of independent transit experts to advise the board on approaches to developing transit strategies for Wake County.”
According to his proposal, the county should consider experts from universities, various institutes and foundations such as the Urban Land Institute, Reason Foundation, Urban Institute and Brookings Institute.
The time frame for this panel would be late October or early November of this year.
After a tense exchange between Commissioners Paul Coble and Betty Lou Ward over transit ideas, that in the words of Coble got “personal,” the board unanimously voted to approve Cooke’s recommendation.