News Column

Programs for needy plagued by computer glitches

May 18, 2014

By Kim Gilliland, News-Topic, Lenoir, N.C.



May 18--LENOIR -- After computer problems created crises in two other social-services programs throughout 2013, yet more problems have popped up as North Carolina begins trying to move Medicaid to a new computerized system this year.

As a result, currently only four pilot counties -- Carteret, Dare, Johnston and Orange counties -- have fully launched Medicaid through the NCFAST system, said Kirsti Clifford, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

But even the limited way in which most counties use the system is creating headaches both in Medicaid cases and in food stamps cases, which also are handled through NCFAST, said Will Wakefield, Caldwell County's Adult and Family Support Services program administrator.

"There are times when changing information in one program has incorrectly affected information in another," Wakefield said. "Typically, touching a Medicaid case can cause an issue with the food stamp case if not done in a very precise manner."

NCFAST, for NC Families Accessing Services through Technology, was intended eventually to expedite the handling of a host of government benefits. Benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps, were the first to be handled in the system early last year. But numerous problems, including glitches in the NCFAST software, caused a backlog of food stamp applications and recertifications, causing people to go weeks or months without benefits.

Counties initially began reviews for processing new Medicaid applications in NCFAST in October and family Medicaid recertifications in NCFAST in February, but the process was stopped, and most counties now use the state's old Medicaid system, called EIS, to process recertifications. There are approximately 1.8 million Medicaid cases statewide, and about 17,000 in Caldwell County.

NCFAST is being used only for new applications, Wakefield said, but even there, there is trouble. While Caldwell County has been able to maintain its review of food stamp applications in the required time frames, some cases still get "stuck" in the system, causing delays for specific families, but less frequently than in the past.

Still, Medicaid applications are taking longer, causing frustration for employees entering data, Wakefield said.

The state also suffered through embarrassing, persistent problems last year with NCTRACKS, a new system to handle billing for Medicaid services. Health providers complained of extreme waits for payment.

But a new problem is that as Medicaid applications have been added to NCFAST, Wakefield said, in some instances getting those applications processed gets held up because of problems in NCFAST getting eligibility information from NCTRACKS.

"It is frustrating for specific cases," Wakefield. "For food stamps, there are occurrences where taking a certain action on the Medicaid case will suspend benefits in the food stamp case for no apparent reason.

"It can happen without or knowledge, but it can be fixed once we are aware of the situation."

NCFAST and NCTRACKS were not designed to transmit information from one system to the other, said Kevin Howell, DHHS's legal communications director.

"Moving forward, DHHS is working to allow NCFAST and NCTRACKS to communicate with each other," Howell said. "In the interim, DHHS has processes and procedures in place to allow county and state workers to access this information."

Despite the problems, Wakefield said he feels better progress is being made to fixing them.

"We are encouraged by the state's more methodical approach to implementation of programs, and are feeling more optimistic than we have in the past," Wakefield said. "We are hoping this more pragmatic approach will continue."

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(c)2014 the News-Topic (Lenoir, N.C.)

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Source: News-Topic (Lenoir, NC)


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