The Richmond County Department of Social Services began implementing a new statewide computer database Dec. 3. The change, which will be coming online in stages across the state, will affect new Food and Nutrition Services applicants trying to receive benefits.
Called NC FAST, the automated tool is designed to improve the way the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the 100 county DSS offices conducts business with clients.
NC FAST will eventually allow DSS staff to spend less time performing administrative tasks and more time providing direct assistance to families, officials said. The system will also help DSS staff access client needs more quickly, determine if they are eligible, and produce faster and more accurate determinations of benefits.
During the initial process for new applications, however, the face-to-face process will take longer. “Currently our application interviews take about 30 minutes on average, but we expect that it may take 90 minutes or longer as we first start using NC FAST,” said Betty Jo Oliver, DSS Food & Nutrition Services supervisor.
Oliver said DSS staff members have alerted area food banks to make them aware that some new applicants may need assistance while they wait on benefits.
This change comes at a time when the Richmond County DSS and other offices across the state are continually seeing a steady increase in the number of residents receiving assistance through the Food and Nutrition Services program, previously known as Food Stamps.
Barrett Hollimon, Income Maintenance Administrator for Richmond County DSS, said the positive trade-off for the lengthy application process will be that data entered into NC FAST will eventually be available to be accessed by other DSS programs such as Medicaid, Work First, Child Care, Child Welfare, and Adult and Family Services are they come online with NC FAST in the next several years.
“Now a client who was requesting assistance through Medicaid, Work First and Nutrition Services would have to see three case workers, have three different sets of paperwork and have three different review periods,” Hollimon said.
“Once NC FAST is up and running for all of these programs, we expect quicker turnaround for processing applications and delivery of benefits,” he said.
While the change won’t immediately affect existing clients, the DSS staff will have to gather new information to enter into the system before renewals will be granted.
Hollimon said most of the new information might be accessible to DSS staff without existing clients having to come in for an interview but it will be very important that existing clients return the redetermination forms in a timely manner.
“Helping us to get the redetermination process started early will insure that there is not a lapse in benefits,” he said.
New applicants who would like to avoid the long interview will have other options. Anyone can go online and complete an application for Food and Nutrition Services at www.epass.nc.gov. The application must be filled out, printed and signed and then the applicant can mail the application to DSS or bring the application to the office.
Applicants can also complete the application over the phone. A caseworker will take the information over the phone and mail the forms that need to be signed along with a list of additional information needed to complete the application.
For more information regarding NC FAST and Food and Nutrition Services, contact Richmond County DSS at 910-997-8481.
— Staff Writer Laura Edington can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 18, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.