A new backlog in the state’s food stamp program has left some Alaskans waiting months for their benefits. More than 12,000 Alaskans have pending applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP, with some dating as far back as July, according to state officials.
The state’s director of public assistance, Deb Etheridge, said Tuesday that there are a number of reasons for the backlog, from office closures for poor weather to short staffing and computer system upgrades. But she said the biggest holdup is a federal requirement reinstated in October after the end of the federal health emergency.
“The single most impactful factor is the requirement from (the) Food and Nutrition Service for the state of Alaska to reinstate mandatory interviews for every application or recertification of SNAP that was processed,” Etheridge said in a phone interview.
Before the interview requirement was reinstated, Etheridge said each application took about an hour to process. Interviews now nearly double that, she said.
“Where we could have processed over 100 cases a day, we were dropping to 70, and sometimes less than 70 a day,” Etheridge said.
The issue affects more than 10% of the state’s roughly 92,000 SNAP recipients. The Anchorage Daily News reported in October that the new backlog is partially a result of the state’s effort to catch up from an earlier slowdown that brought wait times to an unprecedented 11 months.
Etheridge said her department has paused interviews for now and is working with federal officials on other ways to streamline the process. The pause means the agency could fall out of compliance with federal regulations, but Etheridge said her agency meets with federal officials weekly and plans to work closely with the Food and Nutrition Service on a fix.
Etheridge says the state is also working with an outside contractor, the Change and Innovation Agency, on improving its workflow. She says the Division of Public Assistance has made more workers eligible for overtime and plans to offload some Medicaid processing onto contractors who can’t legally handle SNAP applications. Etheridge said she hopes a new online application that the department hopes to launch later this month will streamline processing.
Etheridge said roughly 95% of the applicants stuck in the backlog applied for at least one other assistance program, like adult public assistance or heating assistance, in addition to SNAP.
She says her division has nearly 50 openings for eligibility technicians, who process applications for SNAP and other state assistance programs.
“I know this is not good news, and it’s an unfortunate situation, but our team is really doing the best we can to innovate and find solutions,” she said.