A move toward a new application system has posed its share of hurdles for the Sampson County Department of Social Services and, while the department’s staff is continuing to work to overcome them, it may not come without some staffing solutions to navigate the situation.
N.C. FAST (Families Accessing Services through Technology) is being implemented across the state, with Sampson at the forefront of a modification expected to give DSS workers the tools to quickly identify and assess client needs and determine program eligibility.
The end result is also expected to bring comprehensive case management, information sharing and service coordination across program areas and county lines. And, even though the application process has been taking considerably longer in the meantime, a nearly lighting-quick “one-stop” application process following the conversion is the ultimate goal.
The first DSS service receiving the automation is Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) and it is anticipated that other department programs will follow.
During a recent DSS board meeting, DSS director Sarah Bradshaw said automation does not come without a great deal of work, to include a full conversion of all FNS cases to a completely new system. It is an ongoing process, said Bradshaw, who confirmed at Friday’s meeting that “Hard Launch 2,” a full launch, is expected to begin Nov. 13.
“When workers come in that day, they will not have our old system there as a crutch. It will be turned off and they will not be taking paper applications at all,” she said. “They will be working totally in N.C. FAST. So far, the applications and reapplications that they’re doing, they are doing all of them in there and there are fewer and fewer glitches and problems with every day and every week that passes. So that’s good.”
The process has been helped by conference calls once a week with the state and other Phase I counties (just behind a handful of pilot counties), a sort of forum to discuss and troubleshoot problems with other counties in the same situation, the DSS director said.
As part of a soft launch, Sampson and the other Phase I counties left the old FSIS (Food Stamp Information System) up and running while newly-trained workers used N.C. FAST to process new applications. The county entered “Hard Launch 1” at the beginning of October, when the FSIS system was turned off as a back-up for applications and reapplications.
Next week, county FNS staff is expected to begin receiving the two and half day training for the preparation of Hard Launch 2, in which all FSIS processing will be turned off completely and active FSIS cases will be converted into NC FAST. Income maintenance supervisor Erma Thornton previously said the hard launch’s second stage could take place as early as Nov. 13, or as late as Jan. 22, 2013.
On Friday, Bradshaw confirmed the former.
She said the department has handled the process well, but the conversion of existing cases poses a daunting duty for stretched staff.
“All is well so far,” Bradshaw said. “The only thing that poses a problem is — and it is the same in any other county — we will have to have ongoing cases converted. There is a conversion process to covert information before that worker can come in on Nov. 13 and have what they need in the system to work that case. We are spinning our wheels trying to figure out how to create a conversion team.”
She said it is a tough task, one that she is exploring with senior management. Some temporary personnel may be needed, and they would have to be a trained “vested” person in DSS to help navigate the casework conversion along with existing caseworkers, Bradshaw noted.
No formal discussions or requests have been made, and Bradshaw stressed during Friday’s monthly DSS Board meeting that no extensive talks had been had with county managerial staff about the transition as DSS has tried to brainstorm ways of dealing with fast-approaching deadlines. Bradshaw said Friday she expected to discuss the matter, and staffing concerns, with county manager Ed Causey, county staff and the Board of Commissioners in the near future.
“We are exploring many things right now,” said Bradshaw. “We have not landed anywhere. We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire and we’re trying to figure out how to do it. But the conversion work has got to happen adequately so we don’t bottleneck our work here in the lobby as people come in to apply and we’re slowed down because cases aren’t converted and able to be worked. We’re a little bit under the gun here to get something figured out on that, but we’re working on it.”
According to numbers reported to the N.C. DSS, the number of FNS cases in Sampson County have ranged from 6,400 to 6,700 in recent months, with the number of FNS individuals between 14,700 and 14,800. Bradshaw said new applications continue to come in on a regular basis.
“There are at least 25 to 30 a day,” said Bradshaw.
Ultimately, the reapplication process for approved cases should take a matter of minutes under N.C. FAST.
“When everything is working correctly in N.C. FAST with the hard launch 2, the final launch, the troubleshooting of the problems and glitches and they become few and far between,” said Bradshaw, “it should, they say, take 5 to 10 minutes. It will be a lot better one day — our problem is getting there.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.