County comes to aid of DSS

ndunn@newsobserver.comJune 13, 2014 

With more than 13,700 Medicaid applications and re-certifications pending, the Johnston County Department of Social Services wants to hire 12 temporary workers to help clear the backlog.

On Monday, Johnston County Commissioners gave an informal nod to the request, adding $480,000 to next year’s budget to pay the temp workers.

During a public hearing on the budget, DSS Director Tina Corbett said she hoped to make the temporary hires from a pool of state-paid support staff already in Johnston. Those workers, here for a pilot project, are scheduled to leave at month’s end, and Corbett asked commissioners to act quickly before other counties snap them up.

Corbett said the federal government would reimburse the county 75 percent of the cost of hiring the workers, or $360,000. The county’s net cost would be $120,000.

Johnston County is one of four North Carolina pilot counties tasked with processing Medicaid cases through the new and controversial NC FAST program.

NC FAST, or North Carolina Families Accessing Services through Technology, requires staff to use software that state officials say will ultimately save workers time and improve access for the needy. But when NC FAST for food-stamp cases rolled out earlier this year, DSS workers discovered the opposite, with glitches in the software leading to a backlog of thousands of cases.

In Johnston, the Medicaid software glitches – and increased applications through the Affordable Care Act – have led to a backlog of more than 2,700 applications and 10,900 re-certifications, Corbett said.

“What was already growing caseloads are growing even faster,” Corbett said.

Part of being a pilot county is identifying problems with the software so that it will work properly when rolled out statewide, said Kirsti Clifford, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The problems that county workers encounter are often tackled by a central NC FAST support team, she said.

Originally, the state provided temporary workers to counties to help process food-stamp cases through NC FAST. Since the food-stamp software is improving, the state might reduce the number of workers statewide. Thirteen state-funded support staff are currently helping Johnston County process cases.

“With counties becoming more self-sufficient, DHHS is switching to a more regional approach for (support staff),” Clifford said in an email. “We are evaluating future staffing needs for the next fiscal year as the state budget process moves forward.”

Johnston County Commissioner DeVan Barbour said county workers are catching up with the outstanding caseloads every day. However, to maintain progress, they need to keep the extra staff, he said.

“This is an opportunity to get us over the hump on this,” Barbour said.

The aim is to hire from the existing support staff when their contracts expire at the end of June.

“We need to make a decision quickly to lock some of those temporary workers down,” Barbour said, adding that the alternative is to “hire people off the street who don’t know policy and the system.”

To erase the backlog, the county has required some staff to work overtime. DSS has spent about $106,000 on overtime since Jan. 1, Corbett said.

Money for the temporary workers will come from the county’s cash reserves.

Arts Council request

The Johnston County Arts Council also wants money from the county.

Commissioners began phasing out funding for nonprofits five years ago as a way to save money, County Manager Rick Hester said.

The Arts Council received $1,500 this year, but Hester’s proposed budget for 2014-15 ends support for the group. Darlene Williford, the council’s executive director, asked the board to continue its commitment.

“We depend on supporters, donors and grants to keep the Arts Council thriving for the citizens of Johnston County,” she said.

Willard gave the board a list of requests totaling $26,750, saying the money would fund her part-time position and programs like Artists in the Schools. Also, the money would support scolarships and fund grants the council hands out to other arts groups in Johnston, she said.

The Johnston Arts Council receives most of its funding from the N.C. Arts Council. Data provided by Williford showed the allocation from the state decreased from $44,160 in 2011 to $37,998 in 2014.

The board did not take action on Williford’s request and is expected to vote on the coming year’s budget later this month.

Dunn: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104

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