Why families are waiting for food stamps - WECT TV6-WECT.com:News, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

Why families are waiting for food stamps

Jimmy Gieschen looks into his refrigerator Monday night. He's still waiting for his July food stamps. Jimmy Gieschen looks into his refrigerator Monday night. He's still waiting for his July food stamps.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) – When Jimmy Gieschen didn't receive his food stamps for July on the fifth of the month like he typically does, he chalked it up to the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

A week later without his benefits Gieschen wanted to know what was taking so long for his assistance. The single father currently on disability said he's frustrated with the system.

"I take it one day at a time," he said. "As soon as I get up, I check my card."

Gieschen said he's been told computer issues are the reason for his extended wait.

Case workers with New Hanover County Department of Social Services are currently training on two new programs that'll join the NC Fast system. Work First and Medicaid cases will soon join the statewide system that started with food stamps.

Time to train again

The 20 hours of webinars and 2.5 days worth of classroom training comes just as employees were catching up on the cases that lagged behind from the initial learning phase for NC Fast, according to Christine McNamee, the Assistant Director for Economic Maintenance.

She said employees will be logging overtime and working Saturday shifts to make up for the time spent on training. She said the families needing to re-certify their benefits are the ones who could be behind on receiving their benefits because case workers have to re-enter the information.

"We're not meeting the standards we had been able to meet a year ago and that is frustrating to me," said McNamee.

New Hanover County is only one of 100 agencies across the state to use NC Fast, and that one department, has two dozen technical questions into the state's support office, according to McNamee. She said staff is encountering more bugs in the system than they expected.

"Given the training and the staffing and the issues with the software," she said. "We are just not as timely, as efficient, and as accurate as we used to be."

McNamee said the state's help desk seems to be working around the clock to answer all the questions, but the local agency has more to learn before a soft launch on August 5. It's the same day Gieschen is due for his monthly benefits, but he's worried they'll won't arrive on time.

"I just want to take care of my daughter," he said. "And right now, I can't do that because of this computer system."

Love and support

Caseworkers direct anyone with a lapse in benefits to stop by a local food bank until the paperwork can be processed. Sometimes staff has emergency bags of food, but McNamee said the temporary relief is not enough to replace the monthly assistance.

"Our number one priority is to get the benefits out," she said.

Friends and family supported Gieschen when his case slipped behind, with the occasional meal and gas money to keep he and his daughter active while she's on summer break from school.

"If I didn't have that," said Gieschen. "Me and her would be living on the streets, probably."

Faith in the system

McNamee remains confident that the NC Fast system will be a positive for social services after all the bugs are fixed and the caseworkers are caught up on the learning curve.

She said having every program under one system will alleviate the wait time for applicants and they'll only need to see one caseworker.

Gieschen said whatever benefit the new system will bring is not enough to make up for the month he's spent without his food stamps. He said this is the worst problem he's dealt with in the couple of years he's needed the assistance.

"If it's not broke, then leave it alone," he said. "If it's working to a degree, and everyone's kind of happy, let it be."

Agencies around the state will continue to add more programs to the NC Fast system, like childcare and welfare. McNamee said more than 23,000 Medicaid and more than 16,000 food stamp cases are the bulk of their workload.

A call for comment to the Department of Health and Human Services has not been returned at the time of this report.

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