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Posted: Saturday, September 28, 2013 11:55 pm

BEAUFORT — The state Department of Social Services launched the next phase of its online document management system Monday, shifting the way they do business while juggling potentially changing times for government-funded assistance.

The online system, N.C. Families Accessing Services through Technology – NCFAST, allows social services records to be saved into a master database, in an effort to streamline the application process and service time, while maximizing efficiency.

Last week, the state implemented the second phase of the NCFAST plan – opening new applications for Medicaid inside the database. The shift allows case workers to process applications under the new set of income requirements, laid down by the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act.

The Carteret County Department of Social Services said the switchover Monday went smoothly, despite initial concerns that the launch might slow NCFAST statewide.

“Typically a change of this magnitude results in multiple problems across the NCFAST system,” said David Atkinson, department director. “However, we were pleasantly surprised that after a short delay on Monday morning, we were able to log on and get some work done.”

According to officials, those who qualify as new intakes under the reformed requirements on Oct. 1 will not see benefits until after the first of the year.

“There’s a bit of a catch here,” said Mr. Atkinson. “Even if you meet the new requirements and complete the process, you will not be eligible for benefits until Jan. 1.”

Carteret served as one of four pilot counties for the database rollover, along with Johnston, Chatham and Orange counties. All 100 counties in the state are expected to process new applications in the NCFAST system this week, according to DSS officials.

All closed Medicaid cases are expected to be loaded into the data system during mid-October’s hard launch.

The document management system, which focuses on creating a central network for applying and processing assistance, cost the state a reported $27 million.

Mr. Atkinson said he doesn’t expect to see an immediate push to take advantage of the new eligibility requirements, but instead expects enrollment to pick up later in the year.

“It will be a tight time,” Mr. Atkinson said. “Essentially it could coincide with the holidays, which are strained because we see fewer office hours. We’ll have the same number of applications, possibly more, and less time to process them.”

Open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act runs Oct. 1 through next March.

Last May, the state moved SNAP, the supplemental nutrition assistance program – more commonly known as food stamps – over to the NCFAST database.

The rollover caused statewide delays in food assistance, backlogging applications for assistance by months in some counties.

Last week, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reached out to all 100 counties asking local DSS to send all backlogged applications to Raleigh, where they will be processed by a new NCFAST team, developed to take the pressure off lagged county offices.

In August, the local department told the News-Times that Carteret County suffered only slight delays in application processing, the longest lasting 24 hours.

On top of the system bugs, nutrition services are set to take another hit in November, when the 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary stimulus boost is set to expire.

Additionally, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill last week that plans to cut $40 billion from SNAP over the next 10 years.

Approximately 48 million Americans rely in food stamps, according to FRAC, the Food Research and Action Center.

Carteret County logged 4,679 active cases under food and nutrition services in August, according to the N.C. DSS database.

That number can be misleading, said Mr. Atkinson.

“That can be a little gray because that accounts for households receiving assistance, rather than the individuals within families,” Mr. Atkinson said.

State DSS reported 8,958 Carteret residents received food and nutrition services aid from last month’s active cases.  

Individuals whose income falls below 200 percent of federal poverty levels are eligible for SNAP assistance.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that without the Recovery Act’s boost, food assistance would drop to $1.40 per meal by 2014.

Concerns from analysts have arisen over counties ability to process the influx of new applications on Oct. 1, given the significant technology problems the state is facing with both NCFAST and NCTracks – the Medicaid management information system.

“The state will be as ready as the federal exchange allows us to be,” said state DHHS spokesman Ricky Diaz.

Despite problems with NCFAST, Mr. Atkinson said the web-based system is a much-needed update.

“The old mainframe system had exhausted its usefulness,” Mr. Atkinson said.

The third phase in the NCFAST launch will move DSS’s Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP,) Child Care and the Crisis Intervention Program (CIP) into the database.

Contact Jackie Starkey at 726-7081, ext. 232; email jackie@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @jackieccnt.

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