NC FAST creating Medicaid backlog

pseligson@newsobserver.comMarch 10, 2014 

A new computer system at the Johnston County Department of Social Services is causing longer waits for Medicaid recipients and costing the county overtime dollars.

Johnston’s DSS is a pilot agency for a new statewide computer system called NC FAST. Before, each benefit – whether Medicaid or food stamps – had its own computer system. NC FAST brings all of the benefits under one digital umbrella.

But the software has been causing headaches for Johnston case workers since October, when the Medicaid phase of the pilot program launched. The fallout: The county now has a backlog of 950 Medicaid applications. The cost to taxpayers: mandatory overtime and the hiring of temp workers to process the backlog.

“The light at the end of the tunnel we now realize is a train,” County Commissioner DeVan Barbour said at last week’s commissioners’ meeting.

Johnston County often volunteers to pilot new technologies, partly because volunteering comes with a financial incentive. But overtime costs are now eating away at those incentives, which started three months later than expected.

Tina Corbett, Johnston’s DSS director, said earlier phases of NC FAST had problems, but they were manageable. But in October, NC FAST added Medicaid and a new way of looking at income under the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare. Since then, Corbett said, NC FAST has had a laundry list of problems that just get worse as time goes on.

“Sometimes it’s system slowness,” she said. “If they put in fixes over the weekend, then typically Monday and Tuesday, the system is really slow. ... Sometimes the fix ... that they think will work will not work. Sometimes a fix fixes what it was intended to fix, but it breaks something else. Those are the things that we’re dealing with, over and over and over again.”

As of last week, some 950 Johnstonians were waiting for the system to catch up to their Medicaid applications. The state is helping fast-track people in medical emergencies, but everyone else is stuck in digital limbo.

On some weekends, Corbett said, she has had to require four hours of mandatory overtime of all employees. So far, her department has spent about $50,000 on overtime and still has about $43,000 left in the overtime budget. But the department has already exceeded its temp employee budget and expects to end the year in the red by about $160,000.

Corbett said she doesn’t know when things will get better. She hopes Johnston County and the state can work together to make sure people receive their benefits, and she hopes her employees stick around rather than leave because of the mandatory overtime, which is hurting morale.

Wayne Black, director of the N.C. Department of Social Services, said the state doesn’t know when things might get better for Johnston County. He said implementing NC FAST was made more complicated because parts of it work with the federal health-care computer system, which had its own problems when it launched last year.

The state has been helping counties implement NC FAST by providing extra personnel to do some work and processing some forms in Raleigh, Black said.

But the only real solution is to wait for the software engineers to fix all of the glitches.

The state is paying Accenture about $111 million to build and roll out NC FAST. Planning for what would later become NC FAST started back in 2000, Black said.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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