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Thousands of Alaskans Wait on Food Aid Amid SNAP Backlog

More than 12,000 state residents who applied or attempted to recertify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, are still awaiting for their benefits to be processed months later.

At least one in 10 Alaskans who depend on federally funded food stamps are now waiting on that critical aid as a new backlog continues to swell at the state office responsible for processing those benefits.

Deb Etheridge, director of the Alaska Division of Public Assistance, said Friday that a "perfect storm" of challenges over the last six weeks exacerbated the current backlog, which is affecting more than 12,000 people who applied or attempted to recertify benefits as far back as July.

"This is not news I'm happy to have to share," Etheridge said. "Over the past six weeks, we have seen a steady increase in our backlog for the SNAP applications and recertifications."

The latest issues include weather-related office closures, technology glitches and a reinstated interview requirement, which she said has made application processing even more time-intensive.

Now, facing what Etheridge described as a "growing crisis," the state has decided to hold off on conducting those interviews — falling out of compliance with federal regulations as a result — in its attempt to speed up application processing, and stop the backlog from growing.

A Familiar Position


In Alaska, more than 92,000 people participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. About a third are children, and most have incomes below the federal poverty line.

The latest backlog started to emerge around the same time the state says it finished clearing an older, unprecedented backlog at the Division of Public Assistance.

At its peak, that original backlog affected more than 14,000 Alaskans and their families, who were forced to rely on food banks, food pantries and help from friends and neighbors for months while they waited as long as 10 months for the state to process their benefits.

Federal law requires the state to process those benefits in 30 days.

The delays extended to other public assistance benefits the state division handles, including Medicaid, heating assistance and benefits for seniors.

The backlog began in August 2022 and wasn't fully cleared until September 2023, the state has said. It prompted a stern warning from the federal government, a class-action lawsuit and emergency assistance diverted by Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Alaska Legislature.

The impact was particularly severe in rural Alaska, where many communities don't have food banks and the cost of food and utilities is much higher.

At the time, state officials attributed the backlog to outdated technology, a cyberattack, not enough staffing and the end of pandemic-era waivers that exempt SNAP recipients from annual recertifications during the first two years of COVID-19.

While other states have reported delays in benefits processing following the end of public health emergency exemptions, few have seen delays or backlogs lasting as long or affecting as many people as in Alaska.

Last spring, Alaska was the only state to receive a federal warning warning that penalties could follow without prompt action.

'Perfect Storm'


Etheridge attributed the current worsening backlog to a series of challenges over the last six weeks that, together, caused Division of Public Assistance workers to fall significantly behind on processing benefits.

Those issues included the reintroduction of an interview requirement for everyone applying for benefits, which the federal government required Alaska to do beginning in October. Every state has needed to resume interviews as part of a return to pre-pandemic practices, and states were given advance notice of the change.

Etheridge said that doubled the average transaction time for each application or recertification.

"That directly impacted our ability to get through not only the current work but also the backlog work," she said.

There were also weather-related office closures in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska in recent weeks, as well as technology glitches caused by the state's attempts to develop an online application for SNAP later this month, she said.

During a series of major storms in November, "clients couldn't come into our offices to receive assistance, but also many of our employees weren't able to work from home, because they were also experiencing those same power outages and struggles," Etheridge said.

"It was sort of the perfect storm of what was happening over the last six weeks. All of those factors together have sort of put together put us to where we are today with our backlog," she said.

Falling Out of Compliance


Etheridge said she was growing increasingly concerned about the "rapid growth" of the backlog last month.

She sent a letter to the Food & Nutrition Service, which is the federal agency that oversees SNAP, asking them to waive the interview requirement amid the concerning increase in transaction and wait times for many of Alaska's most vulnerable residents.

On Nov. 22, Etheridge said, she received a denial from the agency. She appealed to Heidi Hedberg, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health, asking her to approve a decision to pause the interviews even though it would mean falling out of compliance with federal law.

Hedberg approved the request the same day, Etheridge said.

"I notified FNS that we were taking this somewhat dramatic move even though they had denied us that move. So they are aware that we have to taken this step to mitigate what we see as a growing crisis," Etheridge said.

She said the commissioner also alerted Gov. Dunleavy of the action. A spokesperson with Dunleavy's office said by phone Saturday that the governor had no comment at this time.

When asked whether Alaska might face any penalties for the move, Etheridge said: "The state will probably initially receive a warning letter, and then I can't predict the future. All I can say is we have a very good working relationship with FNS, and I am keeping them informed of all of our actions."

Etheridge said she and the state were doing everything they could to address the latest backlog.

They're increasing hours that local branches of the division are open. They're still hoping to roll out an online application by the end of December. They're trying to recruit and hire more staff, and are working with federal employees to implement other solutions.

But it wasn't clear how quickly the backlog would be addressed, or how long Alaskans waiting on benefits would go without: Etheridge said the division would need to immediately hire approximately 200 more staff members to get through the division's entire backlog in a month.

It currently has 400 staff.

"This is hard," she said. "And I hope you know we're doing everything we possibly can ... I'm doing my best to get us out of this backlog and keep us from growing it."

Waiting for Help, and Waiting On Hold


Meanwhile, many Alaskans — including Anchorage resident Cathy Campbell — are needing to find other ways to feed their families and keep their lights on.

"I guess this is a weight loss program, but it's not the best one," said Campbell, who for the second time in less than a year has found herself without food stamp benefits or heating assistance after her application was left unprocessed for over a month.

""I'm definitely going through everything I have in my kitchen, and just creating whatever I can with what I have, and just hoping for the best," she said.

She spent nearly all of Tuesday on hold with Alaska's virtual call center to speak to someone after never receiving a call from the state office for her scheduled interview time. She said she never was told that the interview requirement was being waived.

There were 100 people ahead of her in the queue, the automated line told her. Finally, she had reached No. 5 in line.

"And then around the two-hour mark, I heard a click. And I'm like, 'hello, hello.' And then dead air," Campbell said.

Still, Campbell, who normally receives around $238 a month in SNAP benefits, considers herself one of the lucky ones. She expressed frustration about the current situation.

"Just knowing that the families are not getting the help that they need, I really do believe it's leading into a lot of the homelessness. People are having to make decisions, do I buy groceries? Or do I pay for my prescriptions? Do I buy groceries? Or do I keep my heat on?" she said. "There's a lot of, really, life-and-death decisions being made right now for a lot of folks."

Campbell said she often hears a lot of negative things about people who receive public assistance.

"But there's a lot of us out there that are just trying to do the right thing by everyone. You're living your life the right way. You're going to school, doing this, doing that. And crazy financial things can happen. Like you get sick: I got sick with COVID this summer, and then I had a foot surgery," she said. "So those things put you behind on things, and then it just snowballs. And you're trying your best."



(c)2023 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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