MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — Three weeks ago, Channel 9′s Madison Carter reported that 3,445 families were going hungry in Mecklenburg County -- and it’s all over paperwork.
The county is behind on processing food stamp recertifications.
Now, that number has grown. The backlog is now at 4,860 cases. It’s an issue Channel 9 has covered for the past decade with no solutions.
- Decade-long food stamp backlog leaves thousands in Meck County hungry
- Backlog in recertification requests causes strain for Charlotte food banks
- Meck County taking steps to address delays for food stamp recipients
- Food banks affected by system delays for food stamps
- NC families go hungry as food assistance delayed
- DHHS still dealing with backlog for food stamps in state
Carter sat down with Deputy County manager Anthony Trotman and County Manager Dena Diorio to get to the bottom of why their staff isn’t keeping up with the paperwork. They addressed how the county is allocating current and future staffing resources, and also said it’s the state that has to step up next.
Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for clarity and context.
Looming Medicaid expansion threatens to exacerbate backlog
Diorio: “We have asked the Board of County Commissioners, and they did give us another 186 positions to help us with the backlog, as well as get us prepared for Medicaid expansion.”
Trotman: “Right now, we have 357 staff.”
Carter: “You have 357 staff just working on the Food Nutrition Services Programs?”
Trotman: “No, they’re working on all programs: Medicaid and Food Nutrition.”
Carter: “Is there any dedicated staff to this recertification?”
Trotman: “Well, there is dedicated staff to FNS and there’s dedicated staff to Medicaid.”
Carter: “Is there a backlog in Medicaid?”
Trotman: “I wouldn’t say there is a backlog. Because the commissioners allocated 186 positions, the goal is to allocate a good portion of those positions for the Medicaid program because of Medicaid expansion.”
Trotman explained to Carter that, depending on skill level, some staff are working on cases for both programs. He reports a caseload of 650,000 currently which he said equated to nearly 1.3 million touch points for the existing staff.
Carter: “So the majority will go to Medicaid. Obviously both very important programs, but understanding the backlog, the fact that there are families hungry, children hungry today, why not set this as the priority?”
Diorio: “The state has now decided potentially, if the budget gets passed at the state level, that Medicaid expansion will go into effect Oct. 1. So we need to get people on board because we need to be able to process those cases as well.”
Carter: “It seems like there’s a lot of forethought going into Medicaid expansion and preparing for that. While for the past 10 years, we have been trying to catch up on this one program. So I hear you saying it’s a priority, but I also don’t see a lot of thought going into it the same way that Medicaid is, or priority resources going into it for the past couple of years.”
Trotman: “It is a priority because there an economic services division director... and that is one of the number one priorities for them.”
Diorio: “We’re really focused on trying to make sure we’ve got people who are hired and trained for Medicaid, while at the same time, allocating additional resources to the Food Nutrition Program.”
Diorio: “We for years had mandatory overtime for staff to be able to work cases at home and on the weekends. Staff don’t always like to work overtime, even though they make money. They were getting a little bit burnt out. They were getting really angry about having to work every single weekend... We had to give them some relief as well.”
Carter: “I understand people were angry, but they’re also people hungry.”
Diorio: “I get it... We were trying to balance everybody’s needs because if you make people angry, they’re going to quit. And so if they quit, you just exacerbate the problem that you have more vacancies that you need to fill.”
The county managers told Carter they’re set to make offers on 130 of the 186 positions during a hiring event August 19. The individuals have all been pre-screened. If you’re interested in applying for an open position you can find a link here.
During this same conversation, the managers told Carter the backlog goes beyond staffing.
VIDEO: Part 2: Meck Co. unable to keep up with food stamp recertifications
County asks for waivers and blames ‘clunky’ state process for backlog
Carter: “We’ve been trying to get the people of Mecklenburg County some answers about what’s going on with this backlog now for about 10 years.”
Trotman: “It really is an issue of caseload. There was an 88% increase in cases from 2019 to 2023.”
Diorio: “I think everybody understands that hiring people has been a challenge since COVID.”
Carter: “Even before we had COVID and the additional challenges that came there, the county was still dealing with this backlog.”
Diorio: “The processes that we are working with have been and have been in place since forever.”
Carter: “What is that process?”
Diorio: “It requires that you have an interview, a phone interview or an in-person interview, with every applicant which takes up a lot of time even though they submit documentation which indicates that they’re eligible for services.”
Trotman: “Each case... that’s 100 questions that we have to ask an individual.”
Diorio: “The technology that the state uses is very clunky and it makes it really difficult to manage cases. There were a lot of opportunities during COVID, thankfully, for the federal government to do some waivers around some of the processes that we were required to do to try to expedite the processing of cases.”
Diorio: “It wasn’t until the pandemic that we had some relief from some of those processes that we understood what value could be had if we could streamline the process.”
Carter: “Can you tell me again what that waiver did?”
Trotman: “There were automatic extensions on recertification. We halted some interview requirements and we there was a waiver on policy requirements for students and, you know, even for some felons and so on and so forth.”
Carter: “Mecklenburg County is at the bottom of the list when it comes to processing these recertifications on time. The majority of other counties in the state are able to do that... How come most counties are able to do it, but not this one?”
Trotman: “It’s difficult to compare our county to any other county.”
Carter: “But there are large counties who do much better in terms of processes.”
Trotman: “We want to be current. We are in this backlog period because we know what to do, but we need the federal and state government to assist us in doing it.”
Carter: “So all of this comes down to, we’re pointing at the state to say the state needs to clear (their system)?”
Diorio: “I’m saying it’s a it’s a combined responsibility. And we’re doing our part here by putting as much as many resources as we can.”
Trotman: “It’s a capacity issue. What do you do when you have capacity issues? You look at process improvements.”
Diorio: “We’ve asked the state to automatically recertify a lot of the cases that are already been approved. Because we know if we can get those recertified for another six months or a year, it allows us to work on some of the new cases. We don’t have the ability to do the recertification automatically.”
Trotman: “The goal is for them to authorize some of the waivers that we have requested.”
Diorio: “When the (COVID) waivers expired, we saw those backlogs be right back up over time.”
Carter: “And what has the state said to you? You’ve been asking now for several years for the state to clear some of this. What have you gotten back from them?”
Diorio: “Well, we’re still with the same processes that we’ve had before.”
Carter: “So they not been responsive at all.”
Trotman: “I don’t want to say that they have not been responsive at all. They they do work with us. Some of the issues is they have to request a waiver to the federal government, as well.”
At the end of the conversation, the managers told Carter that without any intervention at the state level their goal is to clear the backlog with the help of additional staff by December or January.
Carter plans to pursue answers from the state and even federal policy makers on how they plan to assist in clearing the backlog.
(WATCH PREVIOUS: Backlog causing delays for Mecklenburg County food stamp recipients)
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