Thousands of Alaskans are still waiting for food stamps as state scrambles for solutions

This article was originally published in KTOO. Read it here.

After a months-long wait, thousands of Alaskans have gotten their food stamps. But thousands more are still waiting. 

MaryRuth Moore of Soldotna reapplied for herself and her four children in October. Since then, she’s been watering down crock pot meals to stretch the food she has.

“I feel like I’ve kind of become a scientist in the kitchen, and trying to make things go further,” she said. “So what this boils down to is less vegetables, less fruits — and especially the fresh ones.”

Waits for food stamps stretched out to months following a flood of 8,000 renewal applications in August, after the state’s pandemic health emergency lapsed. State officials say the Division of Public Assistance is working through the backlog faster now, but eligibility workers — staff who process paperwork for benefits like food stamps and Medicaid — say they were told to cut corners to do that. And even Alaskans who have now gotten their benefits say that the months they went without have left them with debt and fears for the future.

Moore says she, too, has been relying on credit cards to get through. She says she worries about how she’ll pay them off, and knows thousands of other people are going through the same thing.

“It’s a very powerless feeling to know that the situation you’re in is so dependent, and there’s no one to reach out to,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be any accountability.”

Moore connected with Alaska Legal Services and filed a case last week. The state’s largest provider of civil aid is Alaskans’ main recourse — the ombudsman’s office was also a resource for those who sought overdue food stamps, but say they are no longer legally allowed to help after a group of Alaskans filed a class action lawsuit against the state last month.

Alaska Legal Services Advocacy Director Leigh Dickey said that last January, the group processed just a handful of complaints. This month they’re working on 200 cases related to food stamps, and they’re taking on more pro bono lawyers to help handle the workload. She said they file 20 to 30 new cases a day, and it’s not slowing down.

“It’s just booming,” she said. “It hasn’t tapered at all.”

“There may be some sanctions”

At legislative briefings in late January, Department of Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg blamed the departments’ difficulties clearing the backlog on legacy technology and the effects of a cyberattack on the department in May of 2021. She said the department was pursuing solutions.

Hedberg and other leadership told state legislators that there has been renewed productivity in the Division of Public Assistance. Deputy Commissioner Emily Ricci said “the number of recertifications being processed daily increased substantially last week, which is positive.”

Ricci, who described the delays as unacceptable, said the department had finished issuing food stamps to people who applied in September and was working on October. 

But two eligibility workers — who say chronic understaffing is behind the slowdowns — told KTOO that their division’s leadership overstated the progress to the committee. 

The eligibility workers did agree that they have been working faster — but they say it’s because leadership directed them to skip mandatory federal processing requirements.

“When I don’t verify anything you tell me, of course I can get your documents processed faster,” one eligibility worker said. KTOO is not using their name because they fear they could lose their job for speaking out.

Staff say they’ve been instructed to approve or deny cases without verifying information like employment and income with anyone except the applicant. Eligibility workers say federal guidelines require they verify with people like landlords and bosses to make sure information is accurate. 

Skipping verification has risks, both to recipients and to the state. If people get larger benefits than they should, they’ll have to reimburse the government later. 

Deb Etheridge, the new director of the state’s Division of Public Assistance, says the department knows the risks and is doing everything it can to get people their benefits.

“We’re taking all measures that we can to expedite this food stamp recertification process,” she said. “We are talking with our federal partners and engaged with them. And they’re aware of steps that we’re taking. And there may be some sanctions, perhaps, but it’s nothing that we’re doing without full awareness and transparency.”

Etheridge, who has been on the job for four weeks, says she took on the role now because she believes in the programs and the staff.

She spent 30 years working in public service before taking on the role. She’s worked in the division, and she’s even been an eligibility worker before.

She described the backlog as an “all hands on deck” situation.

“We’re working very hard,” she said. “We don’t want this to be happening.”

She said with support from the commissioner and the governor, they’re making strides on the solutions that Hedberg set out for the Legislature.

The commissioner didn’t cite understaffing as a root cause in her briefing to the legislature, but the department recently made 53 hires — mostly new roles, Etheridge said, but also to replace staff attrition. 

The department also signed a contract with a group that will find contract workers to answer phones so that highly trained staff can focus on recertifications. And she says two current employees are working on IT solutions while the department looks for contractors to update technology that they say is behind the slowdown.

Etheridge also said security contracts to keep employees safe in their offices should be in place by the end of the month.

But she says her larger goal is to build a department that won’t experience this kind of backlog again.

“I really want to leverage technology to make things easier for people who are applying for assistance,” she said. “Ideally, it’s one-touch processing for all applications, which means that individuals who are applying for benefits can call or they can apply online, and they can get immediate feedback.”

Meanwhile, a lawsuit

Saima Akhtar is the lead attorney for the class action lawsuit ten Alaskans filed against the state. She’s litigated cases like this for about a decade, where citizens sue the state not for money but for the federal benefits they’re due.

She says food stamp programs nationwide are struggling to process benefits on time. And she has insight into the solutions the state is proposing.

“Assuming that technology is the problem and the fix is sometimes part of the issue. In my own experience, in other places, it is never the whole issue,” she said.

“A 30-day processing standard has been the standard in the SNAP regulations, actually, for years and years. And so that was the standard when many of these older computers were the norm, or were the expected technology.”

She said some of the methods the state is using to work through the backlog are effective, like waiving the need for time-consuming personal interviews. But she says that’s a short term fix — the federal waiver will expire after a year.

“The interview will come back in the future,” she said. “So there will have to be sufficient staff to conduct the interviews and maintain the caseload at the end of that time period. This is not a function that can be carried out by computers. It is a mandatory piece in the application process.”

“Why didn’t they plan for it?”

Natalie Richards of Soldotna got her benefits in January after five months of waiting. But she says the experience has left her with credit card debt and nagging fear that it will happen again.

“It’s really frightening to live that way,” she said. “Thinking that your basic needs of food and shelter aren’t going to be met.”

She said she’s grateful the state paid her benefits for all the months she was waiting, but she doesn’t feel like the trial is over. She says she’s using the money sparingly, just in case something like this happens again. And she doesn’t understand why services for the most vulnerable Alaskans are letting them down.

“Everybody deserves to eat,” Richards said. “Why is there such a delay now? I mean, they knew that the pandemic COVID stuff was going to end. Why didn’t they plan for it?”

She said people deserve better from state leadership.

“They still go home and eat their dinner, you know?” she said. “What about the people they were responsible to look out for?”