After months of waiting, thousands of Alaskans received 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 soaks the dishes in a clay pot to stretch the food she has.
“I feel like I’ve become a kitchen scientist and I’m trying to push things further,” she said. “So it comes down to less vegetables, less fruit – and especially the fresh ones.”
The wait for food stamps stretched months after a flood of 8,000 renewal applications in August after the state’s pandemic had passed. State officials say the public assistance department is now working faster with its backlog, but the workers who qualify — staff who processing documents for benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid — they say they were told to cut corners to do this. And even Alaskans who have already received their benefits say the months they went without have left them with debt and fears for the future.
Moore says she also relied on credit cards to get by. She says she’s worried about how she’ll pay them back and knows thousands of other people are going through the same thing.
“It’s a very disempowering feeling to know that the situation you’re in is so dependent and you have no one to reach out to,” she said. “He doesn’t seem to have any responsibility.”
Moore contacted Alaska Legal Services and filed a lawsuit last week. The state’s largest civil assistance provider is the primary means of protection for Alaskans — the ombudsman’s office was also a resource for those who sought overdue food stamps, but I say they no longer have the legal right to help after a group of Alaskans filed a class action lawsuit against the state last month.
Alaska Legal Services Director Lee Dickey said the group processed only a handful of complaints last January. This month, they are working on 200 food stamp cases and are hiring more pro bono attorneys to help them handle the workload. She said they are filing 20 to 30 new cases a day and it’s not going down.
“It’s just booming,” she said. “He’s not shy at all.”
“There may be some sanctions”
In legislative briefings in late January, Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg blamed the departments’ difficulty clearing a backlog on legacy technology and the effects of a cyberattack on the department in May 2021. She said the department is looking for solutions.
Hedberg and other management told state lawmakers that there has been renewed productivity in the public assistance department. Deputy Commissioner Emily Ritchie said “the number of recertifications processed daily increased significantly last week which is positive”.
Ritchie, who described the delays as unacceptable, said the department had finished issuing food stamps to people who applied in September and was operating in October.
But two eligibility workers – who say chronic understaffing behind the delays — told KTOO that their division’s leadership overstated progress before the committee.
Eligibility workers agreed they are working faster, but they say that’s because management has directed them to skip mandatory federal processing requirements.
“When I’m not verifying anything you tell me, of course I can get your paperwork processed faster,” said one eligibility officer. KTOO is not using their name because they fear they could lose their jobs if they speak out.
Officers say they were instructed to approve or deny cases without verifying information such as employment and income with anyone but the applicant. Eligibility officials say federal guidelines require them to check with people like landlords and bosses to make sure the information is accurate.
Skipping verification carries risks for both recipients and the state. If people receive more benefits than they should, they will have to pay the government back later.
Deb Etheridge, new director of the state Department of Public Assistancesays the department knows the risks and is doing everything it can to get people the benefits.
“We are taking every measure possible to expedite the food stamp recertification process,” she said. “We are talking to our federal partners and we are engaged with them. And they are aware of the steps we are taking. And maybe there are some penalties, but it’s nothing we do without full awareness and transparency.
Etheridge, who has been on the job for four weeks, says she took the role now because she believes in the programs and staff.
She spent 30 years in public service before taking on the role. She worked in the department and was even an eligibility worker before.
She described the backlog as an “all hands on deck” situation.
“We work very hard,” she said. “We don’t want that to happen.”
She said that with the support of the commissioner and the governor, they are moving forward on the solutions Hedberg proposed to the Legislature.
The commissioner did not cite staff shortages as the 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 employees to answer the phones so highly qualified staff can focus on recertification. And she says two current employees are working on IT solutions while the department looks for contractors to update the technology they say is behind the delay.
Etheridge also said security contracts to keep employees safe in their offices must be in place by the end of the month.
But she says her bigger goal is to build a department that won’t experience this kind of backlog again.
“I really want to use technology to make things easier for people applying for help,” she said. “Ideally, it’s one-touch processing for all applications, which means people 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 on the class action lawsuit filed by ten Alaskans against the state. She has been handling cases like this one for about a decade, in which citizens are suing the state not for money, but for federal aid they are owed.
She says food stamp programs across the country struggle to process claims on time. And she has an idea about the solutions that the state offers.
“Let’s accept that the technology is the problem and the fix is sometimes part of the problem. In my own experience, in other places, it’s never the whole problem,” she said.
“A 30-day processing standard has been the standard in SNAP regulations actually for years and years. And that was the standard when a lot of these older computers were the norm or the expected technology.”
She said some of the methods the state uses to deal with the backlog are effective, such as waiving the need for time-consuming in-person interviews. But she says it’s a short-term fix — the federal exemption will expire in a year.
“The interview will come back in the future,” she said. “So there will need to be enough staff to conduct the interviews and maintain the workload at the end of that time period. This is not a function that can be performed by computers. This is a mandatory part of the application process.”
“Why didn’t they plan for it?”
Natalie Richards of Soldotna received her benefits in January after a five-month wait. But she says the experience left her with credit card debt and a nagging fear that it would happen again.
“It’s really scary to live like this,” she said. “Thinking that your basic needs for food and shelter will not be met.”
She said she’s grateful the state paid her benefits for all the months she waited, but she doesn’t feel the process is over. She says she uses the money sparingly in case something like this happens again. And she doesn’t understand why services for Alaska’s most vulnerable residents are failing them.
“Everybody deserves to eat,” Richards said. “Why is there such a delay now? I mean, they knew things with the COVID pandemic were going to end. Why didn’t they plan for it?’
She said the people deserve more from the state leadership.
“They still come home and have dinner, you know?” she said. “What about the people they were supposed to be looking after?”