Alaska’s Health Department works through one food stamp backlog only to confront another

Fruit is displayed at an Anchorage grocery store. Overall consumer prices in Alaska’s largest city were up by an annual rate of 7.5% as of April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Food prices were up by 11.3%. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Officials from Alaska’s Division of Public Assistance said its staff worked through the backlog of applications for food aid that stressed Alaska families for more than a year. But that success came at the cost of what officials are calling a “new” backlog.

Division Director Deb Etheridge took over leadership in the midst of the backlog and said getting through the old backlog is a success.

“We’ve got to celebrate those wins and the staff feel really good about it,” Etheridge said. The division got through the backlog two months faster than officials projected.

The division fell behind on newer applications while staff worked through backlogged cases. Etheridge said this time there are 6,000 Alaskans waiting for food aid.

She said the division prioritized getting benefits to the Alaskans who had been waiting the longest. “Our federal partners made it clear that we needed to get through the old backlog — don’t worry about staying current as much as getting some of those old ones off. So that’s what our focus was,” she said.

Since July, the division has been processing less than 20% of new food stamp applications on time. The average decision time for SNAP benefits was more than 80 days — more than four times the division’s goal and more than double the federal limit.

“There’s no perfect plan,” Etheridge said. “But we got thousands of cases worked.”

She said the oldest applications in the new backlog are from April and May, but most of them are from June. And she said they should be easier to get through for two main reasons: The staff is now practiced at moving through a backlog and, compared to the previous backlog, applications from two to four months ago are relatively fresh and faster to process.

The slow processing time for new applications is the cost of a much faster turnaround for renewals. Almost 40% of those applications were processed on time in July, a marked improvement from last December through this April, when the number fell below 10%.

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