A move toward increased efficiency through automation at the Sampson County Department of Social Services began in earnest Monday with the start of training on N.C. FAST (Families Accessing Services through Technology), which will include an initial change in delivery of food and nutrition services, with other programs to follow in the future.
An ongoing business redesign movement at the state level has seen a push to simplify programs and align eligibility processes in an overall effort to maximize resources so that growing caseloads and clients will not necessitate more personnel to serve them. Through N.C. FAST, public assistance programs can be consolidated and comprehensive data compiled for evaluating outcomes and ensuring accountability across the programs.
Food and nutrition services (FNS) is the subject of the first wave of automation, said DSS director Sarah Bradshaw. She updated the Sampson DSS board on the county’s progress at a meeting Monday.
“Today they started the training, with four (sessions) running back to back,” Bradshaw said Monday. Those sessions will run through Aug. 17. “The state has reworked the implementation of N.C. FAST since the pilot counties first tried it. They had to work out some kinks and some problems. They revamped the training; they created something called a soft launch of the program week to week building up to a hard launch, rather than just taking down our old system and starting with a new one the next day.”
That immediate turnover created problems in the pilot counties, so a hard launch gave way to a soft one, in which one week of training by staff was followed by those employees launching the new automated program solely for new applications.
“So we’re easing into it,” said Bradshaw.
Pilot counties are spread across the state, from Buncombe to Union, Johnston to Cartaret, while the subsequent phases are in regional blocks. Sampson is one of 20 counties in Phase 1. There are five phases that, together with the pilot counties, encompass the entire state. In pilot counties, there were some people without food assistance who had to receive emergency supplies of food while kinks in the N.C. FAST implementation were worked out in recent months.
“The one thing we want to make sure that we are ready enough with all this so the process can be as seamless as possible for the clients,” Bradshaw said. “I think that was some of the problem in the pilot counties, albeit they didn’t have the soft launch then the hard launch.”
Along with giving caseworkers the tools to quickly identify and assess client needs and determine eligibility, N.C. FAST would allow for comprehensive management so cases can be tracked, information shared and services coordinated across program areas and county lines. Automation is expected to result in more comprehensive data on service delivery at the state level and enhanced partnerships with counties and other state entities.
Among the other benefits, families will have “one-stop shopping,” experiencing one-time communication of their information and needs, as opposed to telling the same story to multiple caseworkers across various DSS units. That means a more expeditious process, affording workers more time to assist families.
“We look forward to how this week goes with the training and how next week goes with the folks getting the training actually taking some new applications with a new automated program. Part of the soft launch implementation involves leaving our existing program, FSIS (Food Stamp Information System), up so you have a back-up plan if something happens with N.C. FAST. They’re easing us into a full implementation.”
DSS board member Jeff Gray pointed out that by having the training done in the Sampson County office, rather than in Wilmington or Fayetteville, seemed like it would save a great deal of money in travel expenses. Bradshaw confirmed as much, saying it was “wonderful.”
“That’s thousands of dollars right there saved in travel and time,” she noted.
“We feel like we were well-prepared for it,” said Bradshaw. “We’ll deal with whatever little glitches come up, because obviously it will happen. But we’ll be in a better spot soon with processing casework.”
DSS board member Jim Brinkley asked what the time frame was on completing the initial N.C. FAST transition.
“Within 90 days, we should have all the staff trained to the point of actually taking new applications as well as completing re-certifications for all clients,” Bradshaw remarked. “We should be able to do it fully and be fully implemented within three months or so. I say ‘or so’ because it just all depends on how things go.”
As Food and Nutrition Services start rolling, the state already has Sampson and others in line to work on other projects, notably Project 2&6, which would necessitate the county scanning Medicaid and WorkFirst files as part of a second phase of the automation process. There are some equipment and temporary personnel needs that are being gauged leading up to that point, Bradshaw said. She noted 35 computers that need to be replaced that are not compatible with N.C. FAST.
Project 2&6: Eligibility Information System, includes screening and intake, as well as establishing automated systems for eligibility for Work First (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF), Medicaid, Special Assistance and Refugee Assistance. Lessons learned from Project 1 (N.C. FAST for Food and Nutrition Services) are being incorporated in Project 2&6 to help DSS avoid issues encountered during the pilot phase.
Process improvement is ongoing and critical to N.C. FAST’s success, state officials have said. Bradshaw agrees.
“The state is working on parallel tracks, already working on these future projects while they’re implementing food and nutrition,” she said. “We have to be ready. They’re able to roll out the next programs quicker than the first one, because they’ve already got things in place. What we’re trying to do is plan for the second phase. When you talk about the Medicaid program, that’s where the largest number of our staff are.”
N.C. FAST could be implemented for Medicaid as early as this coming spring.
“That remains to be seen,” she said. “We look forward to it. It’s going to be hard to get everything on there, but we are going to stay optimistic.”
While the road is not easy, Bradshaw said DSS employees are excited about what lies on the horizon, and the positive possibilities that automation will bring.
“They’re excited,” said Bradshaw. “We are excited. We’ll see. We are a part of a group of counties who are the first to go through this training after they revamped it. I know (the state is) looking for feedback from how our training goes.”
“Attitude is everything,” DSS board chairwoman Louise Ezzell added. “If they’re excited about it, that’s half the battle.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.