Alaskans once more wait months for meals stamps, employees union blames coverage selections

Nikita Chase doesn’t have a Christmas tree but this yr. She stated she is extra fearful about staving off an electrical energy shutoff discover than entering into the vacation spirit. Her meals stamps, often called Supplemental Vitamin Help Program advantages, had been almost two months late.

“I’m just about tapped out going into Christmas. That’s not an ideal place to be,” she stated.

She ran up debt on her bank card to pay for warmth and electrical energy after she spent all her money to feed her household. She paid considerably larger costs for piecemeal groceries in her distant dwelling of Tenakee Springs as a substitute of taking the ferry to Juneau to do an enormous buying journey whereas she waited for the state test.

So Chase discovered herself in the identical scenario as she was on this time final yr — ready on maintain with Alaska’s Division of Public Help to get her overdue advantages. By the point she acquired them, almost two months later, she was roughly $2,500 in debt.

“I used to be on the telephone in tears, saying, ‘I’ve to enter city to do my buying,’” she stated.

The state is once more in a meals stamp backlog of disaster proportions, leaving hundreds of Alaskans hungry or indebted as they scramble to pay for meals and sustain with payments. State workers say they can’t sustain with the work and the director of those employees’ union stated the state has not adequately addressed rent and retain sufficient workers to finish the backlog.

Final winter federal directors stated 15,000 Alaskans had been ready in a backlog. This August the state lowered the backlog to six,000 folks, but it surely has swollen to greater than 12,000 in the previous few months.

For Chase, that meant lacking a uncommon ferry from Tenakee Springs to Juneau and paying extra for groceries. “Ultimately, you’re paying 3 times as a lot as you’ll have in the event you had simply gotten your advantages,” she stated. “That places you in a gap the place you’re making an attempt to dig your self out.”

‘The results of years of cuts’

Heidi Drygas, director of the union that represents DPA workers, stated Gov. Dunleavy’s administration might largely resolve the issue and get needy Alaskans meals help if it employed and retained extra DPA employees. She stated the state has not executed sufficient to enhance circumstances on the division of public help.

That is the results of years of cuts, the Dunleavy administration’s most well-liked software to attempt to repair their funds woes to serve their coverage purpose, and that is the end result.

– Heidi Drygas, ASEA/AFSCME Native 52 director

“We advocated to the division to extend pay and advantages, work on bettering recruitment and retention methods and simply usually making an attempt to deal with workers with extra respect,” she stated. “What the division and the division ended up doing is one thing that appears to be this administration’s playbook: They contracted out 75 positions exterior of Alaska.”

Final yr, eligibility workers stated workloads acquired too excessive after the Dunleavy administration reduce greater than 100 jobs from the Division of Public Help in 2021, leaving workplaces short-staffed, regardless of warnings from a state watchdog company and the Meals Financial institution of Alaska that it might end in a backlog.

Drygas stated the backlog was the results of a “manufactured” funds disaster. She ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor final yr on an impartial ticket with former Gov. Invoice Walker. Drygas stated the state has not made sufficient of an effort to justly compensate workers, which is why it can’t retain them for essential roles like eligibility technicians.

“That is the results of years of cuts, the Dunleavy administration’s most well-liked software to attempt to repair their funds woes to serve their coverage purpose, and that is the end result,” she stated. “You’re not going to maintain folks round once they know they will discover a better job the place they don’t must work, you recognize, ridiculous hours of additional time and really feel underappreciated and underpaid.”

Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the Dunleavy Administration, stated in an emailed assertion that the “Dunleavy administration stays dedicated to clearing up the backlog of SNAP purposes and is taking aggressive steps to verify eligible Alaskans obtain the SNAP advantages as rapidly as potential,” and that coverage adjustments throughout the division will “construct a extra resilient public help course of and decrease future delays.”

In a gap

Since September, when the state reported it had lowered the meals stamp backlog to six,000 purposes, the variety of folks ready on essential meals help has doubled.  Division of Public Help Director Deb Etheridge stated the division is taking the “rising disaster” very severely.

“I do know this isn’t excellent news,” she stated. “It’s an unlucky scenario, however I would like you to know that our staff is doing the most effective we are able to to innovate and discover options.”

Etheridge stated the backlog started to balloon in October, when the federal authorities required the state to start interviewing purchasers once more after a pause because of the pandemic. Eligibility employees throughout the division stated this slowed them down significantly. There have been different elements, too: Climate-related workplace closures in some areas and a weekend the place employees couldn’t put in additional time whereas data within the state’s pc system was transferred to the cloud — a part of $54 million in tech fixes introduced by the governor in February.

State data on this graph shows that the Division of Public Assistance improved its timeliness rate from a low in the winter of 2023 until that summer. Officials say a series of setbacks put the division behind again in September.
State information on this graph reveals that the Division of Public Help improved its timeliness charge from a low within the winter of 2023 till that summer season. Officers say a sequence of setbacks put the division behind once more in September.

When she noticed the backlog rising, Etheridge stated she requested the federal authorities to offer her employees one other six-month break from interviews, however the request was declined. Etheridge instantly requested state Well being Commissioner Heidi Hedberg for permission to interrupt the foundations, which she granted the day earlier than Thanksgiving.

“We actually wanted to take these dramatic steps with a purpose to be sure that Alaskans can have entry to meals,” she stated. Whereas the backlog continues to be rising, Etheridge stated she thinks it’s near stabilizing.

There are at the moment 143 division employees who course of meals stamp purposes, referred to as eligibility technicians. Etheridge stated she would want 200 of them working full time on instances to clear the backlog this month — a roughly 60-person employees improve. She has 30 new eligibility technicians in coaching now, she stated, and one other dozen or so jobs posted.

Persons are with out meals once more. And now the threats are beginning to come once more, as a result of they’re like, ‘We’re so sick of this, you simply did this to us.’

– Nameless Division of Public Help eligibility employee

Etheridge took over as director of the DPA on the top of the backlog, when some candidates had been ready for advantages for as much as 10 months. She stated this time the backlog is totally different: Alaskans have been ready as much as six months and there are know-how upgrades on the way in which, together with an internet software that Etheridge stated needs to be dwell by the top of the yr. Different know-how fixes shall be accomplished over the subsequent two years, she stated.

“We’re driving for change and success. It simply — it takes time. And I believe that’s the one factor that’s been very laborious,” she stated. “However know that I like this work and I’m very dedicated.”

Etheridge stated employees additional time has been a essential a part of fixing the backlog. A lot of former workers who now work in different state companies have agreed to work on meals stamp instances of their additional time hours and he or she has requested division employees in management roles to pitch in, too, though their workload doesn’t often embrace working instances.

Workers say they simply can’t sustain

One of many first DPA workers to talk out in regards to the backlog and dysfunction throughout the division stated they had been annoyed by the brand new backlog, however felt extra confidence in management this time. They spoke with the Alaska Beacon on the situation of anonymity as a result of they had been involved that doing so would jeopardize their job.

“I simply really feel just like the work itself is simply so overwhelming, that we’re simply not capable of sustain,” they stated. They likened it to the scene within the Disney film Fantasia, the place Mickey Mouse can’t sustain with buckets of water and almost drowns in a flood.


The offices of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services are seen in Juneau on Friday, July 1, 2022.
The workplaces of the Alaska Division of Well being and Social Companies are seen in Juneau on Friday, July 1, 2022. The division is being cut up into two separate companies. (Photograph by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)

The eligibility employee stated it feels “loopy” to be coping with the identical factor once more: “Persons are with out meals once more. And now the threats are beginning to come once more, as a result of they’re like, ‘We’re so sick of this, you simply did this to us.’”

They stated one man didn’t get his senior advantages for a complete yr, one other girl’s paperwork acquired improperly filed and he or she threatened to kill herself in a division workplace.

“She informed me she was going to kill herself, as a result of she did every thing she was imagined to do and he or she was nonetheless not getting her advantages,” the employee stated, and added that they acquired permission to rapidly repair a easy error that had delayed the case. “I can’t have any individual threaten to kill themselves.”

“We’re getting determined,” they stated of the division. “And we’re pushing folks by coaching too rapidly, in order that they’re not capable of grasp the idea of sure insurance policies they usually’re screwing up on instances… persons are going with out advantages due to it.”

Some DPA workers have been essential of the options proposed by the administration. In March, longtime worker Fred Rapp stated the state wants to determine recruit and retain workers moderately than spending hundreds of thousands on software program that he likened to a Ferrari with a lawnmower motor.

This February, union employees rallied in Juneau to ask for higher compensation and for the division to be totally staffed. Etheridge stated it has not been totally staffed since she took on her position, however that the division is actively recruiting.

Meals stamps, senior advantages, Medicaid

In Cordova, the director of neighborhood packages for the native hospital stated her purchasers are ready as much as 5 months for meals stamps. Barbara Jewell works with individuals who entry Cordova Group Medical Heart for behavioral well being and senior companies. She stated those that are searching for meals stamps and Medicaid are “actually susceptible” and make up no less than 35% of her clientele.

“They’re scared. They name our workplace and say: ‘I don’t have meals, what do I do?’ And generally we’re capable of come again with one-time help, however generally there’s not something we are able to do,” she stated. “It’s not likely a hospital’s job to feed folks, proper? That’s not what hospitals are arrange for.”

Bulk food purchased with the $1.68 million Gov. Mike Dunleavy put towards supporting food banks is staged for delivery in Food Bank of Alaska’s Anchorage warehouse on April 21, 2023. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)
Bulk meals bought with the $1.68 million Gov. Mike Dunleavy put in direction of supporting meals banks is staged for supply in Meals Financial institution of Alaska’s Anchorage warehouse on April 21, 2023. (Photograph by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Jewell stated native meals banks are working out of meals and he or she is annoyed to see severely backlogged purposes after the state stated it had labored by the backlog.

“The state acted as in the event that they’ve taken care of it. They usually put out all of those huge press releases about how they fastened it. And it’s not true,” she stated. “I used to be livid.”

She stated the delay in meals stamps is probably the most acute downside, however the delay in processing Medicaid hurts communities, too.

“Medical suppliers don’t receives a commission, which both drives them out of the enterprise or raises the fee for all of us,” she stated. “When suppliers and hospitals have to attend three to 6 months to receives a commission, as a result of it takes that lengthy for an individual’s purposes to get processed — that hurts all people.”

Authorized recourse

In January, the Northern Justice Challenge filed what they hope shall be a category motion lawsuit towards Division of Well being Commissioner Hedberg on behalf of 10 Alaskans not receiving meals stamp advantages in a well timed method.

No person eats retroactively. You don’t make up for having gone hungry and having gone with out these advantages.

– Saima Akhtar, Northern Justice Challenge legal professional

Below federal legislation, the Division of Well being should present ongoing Supplemental Vitamin Help Program advantages to eligible candidates no later than 30 days after the date of software, however some households have been ready months. The criticism stated the delay is because of the “immense delays and chaos of the Alaska Division of Well being.”

Legal professionals and the state agreed to place the lawsuit on maintain for six months whereas they labored on the problem. In Could, the state requested for six extra months, bringing the delay to a yr. Simply final month, the state requested for one more six-month delay, however Northern Justice Challenge lead legal professional Saima Akhtar stated they’re opposing the request.

“No person eats retroactively. You don’t make up for having gone hungry and having gone with out these advantages,” she stated. “That’s the reason we felt strongly that the case wants to return on an energetic litigation docket and we have to transfer ahead.”

Heidi Hedberg, then-interim commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health, speaks at a news conference on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022, at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. She has since become the commissioner-designee. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Heidi Hedberg, then-interim commissioner of the Alaska Division of Well being, speaks at a information convention on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022, on the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. She has since grow to be the commissioner-designee. (Photograph by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Akhtar has labored on meals stamp delay instances nationwide, and stated this is among the most extreme backlogs she has seen as a result of it affected such a big proportion of beneficiaries.

She stated the state has been communicative, however she is prepared for a treatment.

“The delays have really gotten worse, proper? The numbers now are as unhealthy, if not worse, than they had been in Could,” she stated. In Could, attorneys granted the state’s request for a maintain on the case underneath the situation that the state would reduce the backlog in half.

“We aren’t at that place,” Akhtar stated. “There are persevering with issues that aren’t being resolved.”

Alaskans who’re ready on meals stamps used to have the ability to search assist on the ombudsman’s workplace, the company that investigates complaints towards state authorities and departments. Nevertheless, the pending lawsuit now prohibits that workplace from intervening, in accordance with state Ombudsman Kate Burkhart.

“We proceed to obtain complaints about delayed SNAP advantages,” she stated in an electronic mail. “Since we can’t help these complainants, we refer them to Alaska Authorized Companies Company for help in submitting for an administrative honest listening to.”

Leigh Dickey, the advocacy director for Alaska Authorized Companies Canter, stated the variety of complaints has been “loopy.” From January to July of this yr, ALSC attorneys helped get meals stamps for almost 2,000 Alaskans. Since then, the variety of complaints has doubled. Dickey stated there have been greater than 600 requests for assist in November.

Etheridge stated she doesn’t know but how lengthy it would take her employees to work by the backlog, however stated in two weeks she ought to have a greater concept of the timeframe and if she wants further assets to get the job executed.