Department behind Alaska’s food stamp backlog will soon be processing 260K Medicaid reapplications

The Emergency Department and Day Surgery entrance at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

In April, the state’s Division of Public Assistance will begin the year-long process of reviewing every Medicaid recipient in the state. 

All 263,000 Alaskans who receive Medicaid have been guaranteed coverage over the last three years during the COVID-19 public health emergency. Now the division has to resume its usual checks to make sure people still qualify — while it manages a backlog of food stamps and other public assistance applications.

Alaska turned in a plan to the federal government, but it is one of only nine states without a publicly posted plan for how it will wind down from the public health emergency. It does have an FAQ and some information on its website.

“What’s important to know is we don’t want anyone to lose health care coverage,” said Deb Etheridge, director of the Division of Public Assistance. She took over leadership with the division last month in the midst of the backlog because she said she believes in the department and its mission.

“For the individuals who will be transitioning off of our state Medicaid program, we’re working with the federal marketplace with the Division of Insurance to ensure that they have options for health insurance,” she said.

Most of the recertification work falls to the eligibility staff, who will determine if individuals still qualify for federal assistance. But there is something Alaskans can do to prepare: make sure their addresses are up to date with the state.

Notifications about when and how to reapply for Medicaid will arrive by mail, and Etheridge said that checking and reading the mail will help speed the process. 

Updating an address does require a call to the division’s virtual contact center — which has frustrated public assistance recipients with long wait times over the past few months. But Etheridge said the division will be training 75 new contract workers to answer the phones in the coming weeks, which should significantly lessen wait times.

“It’s a major insurance event,” said Jared Kosin, the president & CEO of the Alaska Hospital and Healthcare Association.

Kosin said that people tend to fall off the rolls when there’s a change that requires action from the consumer. He said moments like this one require methodical planning and execution.

“It can be really disruptive to have a lot of people drop off of Medicaid,” he said.

Officials say some reapplications will be processed automatically, but others will need to be done manually by the same eligibility workers that are processing a months-long backlog of food stamps.

But there’s a key difference between the food stamp applications — also known as SNAP benefits — and the Medicaid ones, Etheridge said. 

“The SNAP backlog actually stopped benefits. And so we are quickly processing to get up to speed on our SNAP backlog,” Etheridge said. “That benefit stop is not happening from the Medicaid redeterminations.”

Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Health Emily Ricci said Alaskans who no longer qualify for care will have 30 to 60 days for appeals. The department hasn’t yet released a public plan for what will happen after that.

“We’re going to have a lot more information that’s available for individuals slightly closer to that start date,” Ricci said.

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