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NC FAST – Too Many Eggs in One Basket

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By Leslee Kulba- Imagine! A supercomputer that contains all kinds of data on everybody, a “just machine that makes wise decisions.” Some people act like it’s still a good idea, and yet such a Brave New World has never worked. The problem boils down to the imperfections in knowledge and character that plague humankind. Centralization of control is a bad idea because none of us is as smart as all of us. It is also scary because the few in power might become unstable. And so it is worrisome that this country’s government is strong-arming people into becoming dependent on it for food and medicine.

We continue to hear about problems with the Obamacare program. It has been said that government software is no stranger to glitches. In 2004, a glitch required persons to have a driver’s license from Guam to be eligible for food stamps. In 2013, an oopsie in Georgia’s food stamp software failed to issue renewal notices, terminating benefits for 66,000 people.

Poor people have learned to live with delays in food and services, commonly referred to as “processing.” Now that the working and educated classes are becoming reliant on government programs, they are complaining.

North Carolina has its own examples. According to one study, between 2004 and 2013, only 5 percent of state IT projects were successful. The other 95 percent of the time, projects were overbudget, delayed, or abandoned. The analysis of 84 projects concluded they were, on average, double the contracted cost and one year late. Commenting on the 5 percent, State Auditor Beth Wood remarked, “But then they work horrible and are not even close to what the citizens need.” Wood went on to explain the problems as due to poor planning, poor monitoring, insufficient IT support, and contracts that don’t hold programming firms accountable.

Back in 2013, North Carolina made national headlines for sending 49,000 Medicaid cards for children to the wrong address. More recently, the state has had problems with NC FAST, the new name for food stamps. Just about everybody enrolled in the program suffered some form of setback, but 30,000 families were without benefits for over a month because the new software used by case workers was either timing out while processing or rejecting or losing applications. In July, the program crashed for a few weeks. The mess-ups were so bad, USDA Regional Administrator Donald Arnett remarked, “These delays are completely unacceptable, and a serious failure on the part of North Carolina.”

At the time, North Carolina passed the buck. DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos explained, “The counties that were prepared, the counties that the county commissioners had authorized more staff for departments, where the departments were on top of that training, where their staff were working with us – those counties had relatively very little problems. . . . So it’s not computer glitches.”

While counties went through the motions to convince the state the problem was not on their end, the firm hired to write the software came under fire. The state contracted with Accenture to convert some software used in Ireland into NC FAST. Accenture is viewed by some to be politically-connected. After all, it spent $87,000 lobbying the state in 2010, the year the firm won the contract.

Accenture landed a $90 million contract to write software for Obamacare after Texas cut their contract with them for CHIP, food stamps, and Medicaid. Reasons cited included, delays, inaccuracies, and a $100 million overrun. Upon awarding the contract to another firm, Maximus, the problems were resolved. To date, Colorado, Florida, Wyoming, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Texas have cancelled their contracts with Accenture, due to computer problems.

In North Carolina, it is estimated that 10 percent of the government’s caseload was picked up by food banks, while the DHHS authorized the hiring of 160 temporary employees and transferred others to the help desk. Eventually, it was discovered that a lot of the problems with the software could be solved if case workers used only Google Chrome for their browser. But problems persist.

The federal government was able to hire top-notch tech support from Google and Oracle to work out the bugs. States do not have that level of resources to deal with problems caused by trying to comply with federal mandates.

At the last meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners, County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene rued the predicament the county faced with NC FAST. Not too long ago, the problems were widespread. One could hardly go anywhere without finding somebody who did not get their food stamps at one time or another. People getting assistance for food were sharing their food stamps as they became available. Many did without.

This year, the county will spend an additional $3.6 million on social services. The county will increase its budget by $3.7 million for public service, but that includes the cost of building the new courthouse. The county plans to spend $45 million of its own tax collections on public assistance as it collects $373 million from other governments.

Currently, somewhere around 90 percent of the county’s budget is mandated by state or federal government. Requirements come not only from legislators, but regulatory agencies as well. “The cost of providing mandated services frequently outpaces growth in revenues,” lamented Greene.

Greene did what representatives of government like to do these days, and explained how the money the state gives to one person is passed to vendors of goods and services, and so on, and so on. Groceries, and the county’s large medical community are dependent on the money that flows from the federal and state government to those in need.

Then, Greene got to what she called “ugly trends” in welfare. Among these, the “greatest challenge” was NC FAST. Since 2008, the county’s need to provide food and nutrition services has increased 98 percent. During the same time, demand for Medicaid benefits has only increased 19 percent.

NC FAST is the new food stamps program. It is computerized, because the federal government says it must be. States have selected a variety of software programs, but, responding to a question from Commissioner Holly Jones, Greene said that North Carolina is pretty much stuck with it my now.

When “glitches” in the program were all over the news, and representatives from state government were blaming the counties. Greene reminded the commissioners that she and other members of staff had appeared before them multiple times during the crisis asking for budget amendments.

The county spent $460,000 trying to fix a problem that wasn’t on their end. They expanded their wireless bandwidth, they upgraded the computer system, and they upgraded 300 computers. “We had to make the investment to prove we weren’t the problem,” Greene explained.

The federal government also requires that the program used to enroll people for food stamps be the gateway by which all other benefits may be received. Programs used to be administered in silos. Economic Services Director Phillip Hardin explained the county had been using at least fifteen DOS-based systems written with code developed in the 1980s. The systems were not interoperable, and so, “We may have had the same family receive benefits from three programs, and we were keying into three different systems to issue those benefits by three separate workers.”

The new system was supposed to be efficient, and so county leadership is giving it time. Greene told how, when the county used the old system, it would only take 55 minutes to enroll somebody. Now it takes 109. Recertification of applicants used to only take 23 minutes. Now it takes 45. Last year, the county processed 20,000 applications and 24,000 recertifications. Greene showed a flow chart that was too small to see from the audience just to illustrate the increase in complexity. What used to be done in ten steps now required 17.

“We had to hire fifteen new people working at a high level just to put the applications through NC FAST,” said Greene. The intention was to become more efficient. In reality, it has become more cumbersome.” To make matters worse, the federal government required the new hires to be “fulltime” and “merited.” They also dictate staffing ratios.

Even so, over the last eight months, the county has had to appropriate an extra $15 million to, in Greene’s words, “work around NC FAST.” Ingles provided $35,000 in gift cards, and MANNA Food Bank also stepped up to help make sure people could eat. “The county was very proactive in making sure that families did not go without,” explained Hardin.

The problem is the state invested in a multimillion-dollar computer system, funded largely through federal grants. Greene said that even if the county had the money to buy an entirely new system that worked, the federal government would still require it to use NC FAST.

Assistant County Manager Mandy Stone elaborated. NC FAST is a lot of old programs lumped into one. Each of those programs was complex as a standalone. Behind each of them are ten thousands of pages of policy. When a legislator decides to change the way the government does things, such as changing an age for eligibility, there will be major trickle-down.

Added to that are the “continual changes in guidelines” the large scope of the combined programs and the amount of data that must be collected on each citizen that enrolls. “We have to capture 31 new data points [for each citizen],” Stone explained.

To date, the only programs up and running in the county’s NC FAST system are food and nutrition services, Medicaid, and Work First. The federal government expects the county to get all its welfare services integrated into the program, and the program had to be rewritten some more to comply with a federal mandate that it be compatible with the Obamacare computers.

Since the onset of Obamacare, 160,000 North Carolinians have enrolled in the federal marketplace. Stone told how the federal government requires applicants to first apply for Medicaid, because the law requires rejection by Medicaid before they may be considered for other programs. As it turns out, only about 7 percent of the 160,000 applicants in the state have been eligible, and so a lot of bandwidth has been gummed up only for the sake of going through the motions.

According to Hardin, who believes everything will work out in time, “To some extent, it was like a perfect storm that happened all at one time, a new complex system, the ACA, and already increased caseloads over the past five years because of the economy.” He added, “I was in New Mexcico recently and was reading the paper about the problems they were having in delivering benefits, and it was like reading a newspaper in North Carolina: a new system, the ACA, and increased caseloads.”

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