At the Guilford County Board of Commissioners’ Thursday, Oct. 6 meeting, the board discussed the best ways to avoid Armageddon.
At least, that’s how it sounded at times when the commissioners and social services staff discussed ways to mitigate the anticipated mayhem that may occur when Guilford County transfers several additional social services programs onto the dreaded North Carolina Families Accessing Services Through Technology (NC FAST) computing system in the coming months.
The dysfunctional system, which has a much deserved reputation for causing calamity, has made mincemeat of effective food stamp delivery for years and – while counties across the state are still recovering from that nightmarish system implementation – social services programs such as daycare, child services, energy assistance and others are about to be transferred to NC FAST as well.
“We have seen that this thing doesn’t work and there are some catastrophic events that could happen,” Commissioner Ray Trapp said of the coming changes. “We’re not talking about people having to go to a food bank and say, ‘We’re out of food.’ We’re talking about small businesses closing; we’re talking about people losing homes.”
Like social services departments across the state, Guilford County’s Division of Social Services (DSS) is now entering “Phase 3” of NC FAST implementation, which includes daycare payments, children’s services, crisis intervention programs, power bill assistance for low-income families and non-emergency medical transportation services. The move of these programs to NC FAST will be followed by a transfer of the Aging and Adult Services program – meaning eventually all major DSS services will be on the NC FAST system.
Given what’s happened in the past six years of NC FAST implementation, county officials are understandably wary of what will occur when the additional programs are moved over to NC FAST.
With daycare services about to come online, county staff is anxious to began training on the new software in order to do what they can to avert disaster – only there’s a catch: The state still hasn’t given them anything to train with.
Elizabeth White, the director of the county’s Economic Services Division of DSS, told the board that the NC FAST eligibility vetting function for daycare applicants is currently a black box.
“The training isn’t available for us to start,” White said. “We check every week to see if it is available. We don’t know what the training looks like; we don’t know what the system looks like; we have not seen it yet. On the eligibility side, we don’t know what it’s going to look like and we don’t even know the steps it’s going to take.”
DSS Administration and Transportation Division Director Myra Thompson said the most difficult part is that staff will be jumping into a system with little to no training since they haven’t had a chance to work with the system for any length of time.
In addition to concerns about the transfer of daycare payments to NC FAST, Trapp said the consequences could also be dire with the transition of other services, such as the supplemental energy payments the department makes for families in need.
“On the energy side of it as well,” Trapp said, “if Duke Energy doesn’t get their check, they’re cutting off somebody’s electricity. There are a whole lot of policy things that go in with this, and I don’t think the state has ever paid attention to the policy side of it. It’s always been just about rolling out the program and rolling out the software but not bringing in the policy side.”
Trapp said he’d spoken with Wayne Black, director of the Social Services Division of the NC Department of Health and Human Services.
“He seems like a fine guy and seems like he gets it, but I don’t know who above him has no idea of the policy implications,” Trapp said.
Trapp said at the meeting that he has zero faith that NC FAST can track and pay energy bills any better than it has handled food stamp benefits in recent years.
Thompson told the board the details of the coming changes.
“In July and August, we started working with daycare providers,” Thompson said. “We have 300 daycare providers in Guilford County that receive child care subsidies. So we have to get them enrolled in the NC FAST system in order for eligibility staff in October and November to start loading up those daycares, which will get paid by the state.”
Currently, Guilford County DSS pays the daycare providers for those clients that receive benefits and the county gets reimbursed by the state.
“The state is moving to take over that,” Thompson said. “The state will be making those payments and there won’t be up-front county money,”
White said the state had experienced delays in rolling out the daycare component for NC FAST.
“The state has already had to push back the implementation of the programs for daycare,” White said. “Originally that plan called for rolling out daycare at the start of the school year.”
Guilford County Social Services Division Director Heather Skeens said the change over will cost the county money due to the staff time required.
“Conversion is going to require overtime hours,” Skeens said. “Our workers are having to do their normal jobs plus convert cases while they’re trying to maintain current cases.”
Skeens added, “One of our major concern is that, if that system does not roll out correctly, there’s no fallback for paying providers. We won’t have money to pay the providers, and the system won’t pay providers either – and so we are concerned that, should that not roll out correctly for us, we will have providers who are not paid.”
Trapp said that, based on what he’s seen of NC FAST in the past, everyone can expect the daycare payments to be mishandled. He said the system has caused huge problems when it took over various services previously and, when it comes to daycare and its importance to families, he added, this transition could be a disaster.
“That was my next question: What can we do when providers aren’t paid?” Trapp said. “Some of these franchise providers – they’ll be fine. They can live through it, but some of these smaller daycares cannot absorb having a month without pay. That‘s a huge issue.“
Skeens said that’s a concern she shares.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said that, given all the concerns, it’s critical that social services staff stay in close contact with the commissioners during the transition. He said that, whenever the commissioners could help by communicating concerns to state legislators, they would do so, and Phillips added that these days there’s not much margin for error when it comes to small daycare businesses, and therefore timely payment was vital.
Commissioner Carlvena Foster also expressed her concerns over the transition.
“It does seem like this is going to require a lot from providers,” Foster said. “So I can see why we need a lot of training.”
She added that many questions remain.
Skeens said social services staff has an “equal concern” about the payments to transportation providers who will now be put on the system.
“We have a huge population that we transport in non-emergency transportation and our vendors will not be able to survive if they don’t get paid through [the system] and get paid quickly,” Skeens said.
There seems to be a little less worry about the move of Child Services operations onto the NC FAST platform since much of that work – such as visiting homes and talking with parents – is done in the field, and that service isn’t as dependent on the software as the payments- and benefits-oriented sectors of DSS are.
Skeens said the county’s Aging and Adult Services would move to NC FAST in 2018 and that should be a real challenge as well.
“We wanted to let you know what we are getting ready to face,” Skeens told the board.
When food stamps went onto the NC FAST computing platform several years ago, social services workers became so frustrated with the system that they stopped processing forms and started shoving them into the back of drawers and then lied about having processed those forms. That led to one of the biggest scandals in the history of Guilford County government.
At the Oct. 6 meeting, a disgruntled Trapp said it doesn’t matter how much county officials stress to state officials their concerns about the coming transition.
“The bottom line is that the state doesn’t care,” Trapp said. “They are well aware of the issues and they don’t care. They are well aware of NC Fast. They don’t talk about it; they don’t want you to talk about it.”
Phillips said he wouldn’t go that far.
“I hope you’re wrong,” Phillips said, adding that he’s not disagreeing that NC FAST has been a broken system.
Trapp shot back, “It’s been how many years now?”