For years, social services workers across the state have moaned, groaned and pull their hair out over North Carolina Families Accessing Services through Technology (NC FAST) – the now infamous computing software system used in processing, recording and reporting applications and other documents for social services departments in North Carolina. Now some Guilford County officials are calling for a fix to the problem.
In Guilford County government in June, NC FAST problems were a topic of debate in the county’s budget talks. And, earlier this month, during a discussion at a county commissioners meeting, when the question about what could be done to fix the software came up, one top county official said under his breath, “Take it out and shoot it.”
That six-word solution also expresses the feelings of some who work with the system on a daily basis. However, NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) officials say they’re committed to the system, and they – along with some in the Guilford County Health and Human Services Department – say that the suggested radical fix won’t be necessary because the system is improving, bugs are being removed, user training is more extensive and the state and counties using it it are now seeing some positive results from NC FAST.
The much-maligned software system was one reason the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted not to fund some new positions requested by Guilford County’s Social Services Division – even though social services officials said they were badly needed and the county manager recommended funding those positions. Several commissioners said after the vote that – given problems with the NC FAST software – those new workers would only be able to process a few client applications a day and, therefore, they argued, it wouldn’t do much good to add those new staff.
Guilford County Commissioner Alan Perdue, who was director of Guilford County Emergency Services before taking a seat on the board, said this week that employees must have the right computing system in order to be effective, and he said he has real concerns about NC FAST based on all he’s seen and heard in recent years.
“My concern is that it’s keeping staff from being 100 percent,” Perdue said. “These are things we need to look at. Until then, adding more people is just compounding the problem.”
Commissioner Ray Trapp, who is the Board of Commissioners’ point man for all things related to social services, said he’s seen enough of NC FAST.
“We need to scrap it,” Trapp said. “Everyone knows that. We need to get rid of it.”
He said the problems have persisted for years and everyone needs to admit that it was a giant mistake and move forward with a new system. Trapp said he knew that wouldn’t be easy given the commitment the state has made to the software program – and given the general inertia of government.
Trapp said so many decisions in Raleigh are political, but he added that he’s a devoted Democrat and that NC FAST was begun under the administration of Democratic NC Gov. Beverly Perdue.
“And I’m saying scrap it,” Trapp said. “It shouldn’t be political.”
Therefore, he said, the Republicans in power in Raleigh certainly shouldn’t feel any loyalty to the system.
Trapp said, “I talk to commissioners from all over the state and every county – and, outside of Health and Human Services, you’ll never find anyone say anything positive about NC FAST. The big question is can we scrap it?”
The short answer to Trapp’s question is absolutely not.
Guilford County and state DHHS officials say the state is 100 percent behind NC FAST, and they point out that the state has spent years moving every county onto the computing system. In fact, the use of NC FAST – now handling food stamps and Medicaid services – will be extended to additional programs in all 100 counties over the next two years.
Guilford County Social Services Director Heather Skeens said state officials are committed to the program.
“It’s my understanding that NC FAST is here to stay,” she said. “At least all the information from the state says that. There’s no indication NC FAST will go anywhere.”
Two-and-a-half years ago, before Skeens headed up Guilford County’s Social Services Department – which is now part of a combined Guilford County Health and Human Services Department – workers in the department were having such a hard time entering information into NC FAST that they essentially gave up and started shoving applications into file drawers and other out-of-the way places.
That plan didn’t work too well because each unprocessed application represented a person or family that wasn’t getting food stamp benefits they were entitled to. A giant scandal in early 2014 revealed that there was an astonishing backlog of over 8,000 applications in Guilford County – a debacle that could have cost the entire state its federal food stamp funding. Other counties in North Carolina were having problems too with the new system, though nothing like Guilford’s.
Wayne Black, director of the Division of Social Services for the NC DHHS, said this week that there’s no question there were issues with the transition of food stamp services and other services to NC FAST – especially in Guilford County – but he added that things are getting better, many of the issues are being addressed and NC FAST is now running much more smoothly in Guilford County and other counties as workers become more acclimated to the computing system and the kinks are ironed out.
Black said that, in Guilford County’s backlog situation in 2014, there were a lot more issues at play than simply problems with the software.
He said one issue was the switch from social services workers filling out paper forms with pens to entering the information electronically, and he added that that would have been an issue with any new computing system.
“The conversion to an electronic system was a significant learning process,” Black said.
He added that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act forced NC DHHS to rush forward with getting Medicaid benefits onto the system. He said the Medicaid element was originally going to be something the state implemented in a slower fashion after smaller less complex programs were done first.
Black said another factor that hurt Guilford County and other counties was that, between 2008 and 2014, there had been about a 75 percent increase in food stamp caseloads, so one problem was the simple fact that counties were handling many more cases than before.
“It was really a perfect storm and they didn’t weather it well,” Black said of Guilford County in late 2013 and early 2014.
State officials don’t like to be openly critical of the management of county social services, but another major factor was extreme mismanagement by former Guilford County Social Services Director Robert Williams, who was forced to resign in March 2014 after the scandal broke.
Black said that other counties in the state had seen some rocky roads as well in their transition to NC FAST, but he added that many of the problems have now been worked out and the state isn’t seeing the same backlogs of applications. He said that, in the first six months of this year, timeliness rates statewide have been at about 95 percent for Food and Nutrition Services. In Guilford County, he added, those have been even higher.
“Guilford County is running about 1 or 2 percent higher than the state average with the second most applications,” Black said.
For the last six months, in fact, Guilford County has come in right around 98 percent.
Black also said that, though there’s clearly a learning curve for using NC FAST, the system brings benefits in the form of a whole new level of reporting detail. He said there’s a lot of information to report in eligibility cases and added that there are a lot of nuances in that data.
“NC FAST is a case management system,” he said. “It’s complex – it has to be complex.”
According to Black, some workers who came up through social services using pen and paper are having difficulty switching.
“Not all case workers have equal skills,” he said.
Black added that, as younger workers come in who are more familiar with computers, things seem to be getting better every day.
“I think the system is working,” Black said, adding, “I’m not going to say the system is perfect.”
Angela Taylor, director of the Office of NC FAST, said there are certainly no plans to use anything else, but she added there are efforts to implement fixes and provide more training.
“We do not have a retirement date,” Taylor said of NC FAST.
The framework for the system is IBM’s Curam software platform. Taylor said NC FAST was designed by a “blended team” of state employees working with private companies.
“It is a rules engine that works with any web browser,” she said.
North Carolina isn’t the only state using a similar system.
“Six other states are sharing our code,” Taylor said.
IBM’s Curam system gained some national notoriety in late 2013 and early 2014 – the same time Guilford County had its massive backlog. At that time, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton wrote to IBM and said of Curam, “I request that you immediately deploy whatever people or resources are needed to correct the defects in your product that are preventing Minnesotans from obtaining health insurance. … Your product has made it impossible to provide Minnesotans with any reasonable customer service.”
Also, about that same time, Maryland officials were complaining of “serious software defects” with Curam, and that state was having similar problems.
Both Black and Taylor said things are now getting better with county users across North Carolina.
Black also said NC DHHS is on its own timeline now that the healthcare element is in place and the state was no longer on the feds timeline as it was with Medicaid.
“We’re back to being in control of how we do business,” Black said. “The system is improving.”
Meanwhile Guilford County is expanding NC FAST to Children’s Services and other programs in late 2016 and 2017. Skeens said she thinks the problems of the past will not be repeated.
“I think we’ve learned lessons,” she said. “I think the state has learned lessons over the years.”
Like Black, Skeens said doing the hurried Medicaid transition was quite an experience.
“That was kind of like flying the plane while you were building it,” she said. “Because of affordable health care, we had to put in Medicaid faster than we wanted, and when I say ‘we,’ I mean the state. The plan was always to put in child welfare first. That was the plan from the beginning, so when affordable health care came along, we had to switch the plan. They [the state] had not built the system to be compliant with the federal government, so they were building the system as we were implementing the system to be compliant with what the feds were telling the state we had to be.”
Skeens said that there will be benefits once everything is in place and working well over all divisions.
“I can’t speak for everybody, but the thought of having an integrated case management system is very exciting to me,” Skeens said. “It helps us provide better services.”
Sharon Barlow, the director of the Guilford County Children’s Services Division, said of the coming transition of her division to NC FAST, “It always gives you pause,” but she added that the division will be ready and said it may go smoother than some transitions have gone in the past.
“There’s been some lessons learned,” she said.
Barlow said one good thing is that when it comes to child care, problems in the software won’t grind everything to a halt as it did with food stamps.
“We can still make our visits,” she said. “It won’t stop us. It’s a little different. A lot of our work is going to the home or going to the school and taking notes.”
Barlow also said the current legacy system has its own set of issues.
“We’re not leaving a system we loved,” she said. “It’s old.”
Guilford County DHHS Economic Services Division Director Elizabeth White said the state will get better reports from NC FAST once everything is working properly.
White said that, before NC FAST, the state had “multiple legacy systems,” and some were 30 years old. She said there was a desire by the state to “have everything under one umbrella,” and she added that a benefit to the state would be better monitoring and control by NC DHHS.
White also said Guilford County’s services should benefit as well once everything is in place.
“All DSS will be in one place – that is an advantage,” she said. “Their reports are a lot more detailed. It’s going to take time. Are there glitches? Yes. I think they’re getting used to it. We also have work-arounds.”
Years ago, before NC FAST came to Guilford County, there was a discussion among commissioners as to whether Guilford County should wait for two or three years for NC FAST or go to an expensive private case-tracking and management system. The commissioners chose to wait for NC FAST because it would be free and, at that time, state officials were making big promises about how good it was going to be. After all the problems implementing NC FAST, many commissioners thought they had made a huge mistake – however, if they had gone with a private system, the state would have made them change to NC FAST anyway; so if they had made that “right” decision back then, Guilford County would have spent a great deal of money and then ended up being forced to go to the NC FAST system. So in the end, the Board of Commissioners apparently made the right decision – even if they only did so by falling backward into that decision.
Either way, Guilford County would have eventually ended up with NC FAST.
“There’s no option,” Skeens said, “There’s no opt-out of NC FAST, because we’re state-supervised and county administered.”