Alaska’s State Public Assistance director is no longer in her post following news of months-long waits for food stamps

Cans on shelves in a grocery store
IGA Foodland grocery store in Juneau on Dec. 20, 2022 (Paige Sparks/KTOO)

Division of Public Assistance director Shawnda O’Brien is no longer in her post.

A voicemail message on O’Brien’s state cell phone on Monday said she was no longer serving as the division’s director.

“You’ve reached the voicemail for the Division of Public Assistance,” the message said. “This position is vacant, and the phone number is forwarded to the deputy director.”

State officials did not respond to KTOO’s requests for comment. But in an email sent to Department of Health staff Monday evening, Commissioner Heidi Hedberg thanked O’Brien for her decades of service.

The news comes as the division has been under fire for its failure to issue food stamps and Medicaid benefits in a timely manner.

In December, KTOO reported that thousands of Alaskans had been waiting months for their benefits. After state Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg blamed the backlog on a 2021 cyberattack and a recent surge of paperwork, sources in the division told KTOO there were longstanding problems in the department, including chronic understaffing.

The division is still working through the September food stamp renewals.

Juneau resident Deb Etheridge will replace O’Brien. She was previously the assistant director of Southeast Alaska Independent Living and has worked for the state’s Department of Health before. She is scheduled to start on Jan. 17.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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