With thousands waiting, state says food stamp backlog won’t improve any time soon

December 20, 2022, IGA Foodland grocery Juneau Alaska (Paige Sparks/KTOO)

Temperatures in Soldotna drop below freezing at night, but Jo Lunstedt says he had to skip electricity bills to support his family.

“I applied for benefits on Oct. 27, 2022, and as of today’s date, I have yet to hear anything from them,” she said. “I have to stretch my food longer. So we don’t have seconds.”

Lunstedt is one of thousands of Alaskans who have fallen behind on food stamp applications known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits (SNAP).

Alaska Health Department Director Heidi Hedberg said the problem dates back several months and her staff don’t expect it to improve anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Alaskans from Anchorage to Nome say they have a choice between paying bills or buying food. Some skip meals so that their children have enough to eat.

“We are working with the tools we have”

Hedberg said the ministry is hiring more people to process applications, but it could be months before hungry households feel comfortable.

“We listen to their complaints and want them to benefit. We work with the tools we have,” Hedberg said.

After receiving multiple requests for comment from KTOO, the department broke its silence on the delay after the first story was published. Applicants were also buried in the dark.

Kabrina Field was desperate for answers, so she called the offices of Governor Mike Dunleavy and her state Senator Mia Costello. She said she got a call from her Public Assistance Office after a call to her senator.

“They said it would take 90 to 120 days to process my recertification. And they said that was the best they could do. I have to run the track in ,” she said.

She and her three children have not received food stamps since October. She has relied on her friends, family and food banks.

“I have to keep billing,” Field said. “There are no ifs, ands, buts. But as far as Christmas is concerned, it will be very, very, very small.”

Effectiveness is slow due to labor shortage and cyberattacks

States typically recertify families receiving SNAP benefits every six months, but this was not necessary during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the public health emergency was lifted her June, the Alaskan had to resubmit her paperwork.

Shaunda O’Brien, director of the public assistance department, says it led to a huge amount of applications at once — 8,000 in August. She said her department was lagging behind. and requested more staff.

“We had to retrain our staff because many of them hadn’t done this in the last few years,” says O’Brien.

Hedberg said the lingering impact of cyberattacks on the health sector in May 2021 exacerbated the problem.

According to the department’s own reports from November, only about one-third of SNAP recertifications were processed in a timely manner.

“We don’t want to see anyone go without food,” O’Brien said.

The state is in the process of hiring 33 new staff, and O’Brien is calling for another 40. She said there are currently 30 open positions.

In the meantime, she said the department devoted more time to processing applications, including spending a full day every Wednesday. Told.

But the department is still processing applications from September.Hedberg said there is a dedicated team working on those applications, and another team is focused on applications from October. Another team is processing current applicants.

O’Brien estimates the state needs 8,000 investigations, including 1,700 in September and 2,000 in October.

“Maybe from now until a few months from now, we won’t see much change,” she said.

She encouraged those in urgent need to call 211, the number for United Way, a nonprofit that connects people and services in Alaska.

flood of complaints

If Alaskans feel that the state does not hold part of the social contract, there is another resource. Ombudsman’s office.

Review complaints about state agency programs such as SNAP. It is nonpartisan, independent, and objective.

Kate Burkhart of the Alaska Ombudsman said her office was investigating complaints about the public assistance department.

“This year, today, we have received more than 180 complaints related to delays, lack of communication and lack of proper information related to public assistance benefits,” she said.

She added that complaints have a sense of déjà vu. Her office investigated the public assistance department in 2018 in connection with reports of delays and lack of proper communication.

They reported that adding more staff would go a long way toward solving the problem. The state has done so, and complaints have declined significantly over the years.

“In 2021, we only had 83 complaints,” she said. “2022 is not over yet and will probably triple that.”

More than 80% of complaints have been received since the state began recertifying SNAP recipients in July. In the last two weeks, she said, her office has received about three complaints a day.

Burkhart said the slowdown could not be fixed, but her office was working with the state. And it might be able to help desperate people in the meantime.

“If you have a problem and don’t know what to do, call us,” she said.

The Department of Health also provided advice on how to make the recertification paperwork go more smoothly. Submit your application in the middle of the month and double check that your application is complete and do not submit the same application multiple times.

Alaskans are eligible for retroactive benefits once approved. This means that anyone who submitted paperwork for recertification in September will receive all payments on time, even if they are several months late.

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