While Alaska’s state government has made progress in getting more people food stamps, advocates say the process to appeal state denials or delays is breaking down.
Food stamps are a federal benefit the state of Alaska manages, and there are rules for how quickly the state has to get the benefit to qualified applicants. The state has been taking an unlawfully long time to process most applications since last fall.
Citizens have a right to a legal hearing when the state takes too long to get them food stamps or denies their application.
State law requires the Division of Public Assistance to refer appeals, called fair hearings, to the Office of Administrative Hearings to be scheduled within 10 days, but advocates have said that’s not happening. So, fewer people are waiting for benefits, but those that are still waiting aren’t getting legal due process.
Leigh Dickey, an advocacy director for Alaska Legal Services Corp., a free civil legal services resource for low-income Alaskans, said the result is that the division is violating state law again.
“Increasingly, DPA is failing to meet this deadline, seemingly because of short-staffing,” she wrote in an email. “Our clients are being denied their fair hearing rights while their cases languish in DPA’s backlog.”
Alaska Legal Services Corp. has filed nearly 2,000 requests for fair hearing on behalf of its clients since September of last year. Dickey said most cases take longer than the 10-day deadline to be scheduled, and it has taken the Division of Public Assistance 30 to 60 days to refer some cases for a fair hearing.
The state’s Department of Health acknowledged there has been an increase in delayed fair hearing referrals. Shirley Sakaye, a spokesperson for the department, said that is due to short-staffing — and an increase in requests for fair hearings.
“Most hearing requests are being submitted due to the delay in receiving benefits due to the backlog,” she said in an email. “As the number of backlogged applications is reduced, the numbers of fair hearings are also trending down, however, the overall number of fair hearings requests remains elevated compared to the numbers filed prior to the backlog.”
She added that the referrals can usually be solved before a hearing is necessary — the Division of Public Assistance often simply issues the food stamp benefits.
There are usually three staff members that make the referrals, Sayake said, but one position is vacant and the other two staff have been out of office. Other staff have been reassigned to fulfill those roles in the meantime, she said.
The Division of Public Assistance is also responsible for managing Medicaid benefits for the state. This year, the COVID-19 freeze on Medicaid benefits has ended, and Alaskans will have to re-enroll. Dickey from Alaska Legal Services said the delay for referrals for food stamps has her organization very concerned that people who lose Medicaid coverage will face additional wait times and struggle to regain it while the division gets back on track.
“We are expecting an increase in applications later this year from people who have lost Medicaid coverage as a result of the unwinding process, and we are worried about the State’s ability to handle the increase in fair hearing requests that will accompany the unwinding,” she wrote. “It does not seem that DPA has planned for this at all.”