Alaskans suing state over food assistance delays ask judge to order faster application processing

Packaged food sits on shelves at Sitka’s Salvation Army food pantry in 2018. (Photo by Emily Kwong/KCAW)

Alaskans who sued the state last year over long wait times for food assistance are asking a federal judge to order the state to speed up processing.

The state’s Division of Public Assistance has struggled in recent years to keep up with pending applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or food stamps. At times, more than 14,000 Alaskans were left waiting for benefits. And the state must act, said Saima Akhtar, a senior attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.

“This is a very, very significant crisis,” she said. “I have done a number of cases related to timeliness litigation, and I have not sort of seen a crisis of the proportion that we have seen in Alaska.”

Akhtar and a coalition of attorneys sued the state on behalf of hungry Alaskans last year. U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason revived the class-action suit in February after the parties initially agreed to put it on hold while the state worked to address the backlog. 

Now, attorneys in the case are asking the judge for a preliminary injunction that would order the state to process applications in line with federal requirements. That’s 30 days in most cases and seven days for expedited applications. 

A court order could help the state obtain waivers from federal requirements that may slow processing down, Akhtar said. The state could also implement something known as broad-based categorical eligibility, which she said would streamline application processing.

“When there’s a court order and the government is looking at whether or not they can, sort of, take exceptional measures internally, a court order is something that will signal and provide a a reason to go the extra mile and take exceptional steps,” she said.

But the director of the state’s Division of Public Assistance, Deb Etheridge, said that over the past few months, the situation has improved considerably. Etheridge says as of March, the state was processing about 90% of its applications by federal deadlines. As of early May, she said there were just 50 SNAP applications or recertifications lingering beyond the 30-day deadline.

“But all 50 of those cases have been worked, and they’re in a pend[ing] status for one reason or another,” Etheridge said in a phone interview. “Some of the reasons could be additional information, or they could be a request for fair hearing.”

Etheridge pointed to the state’s decision to pause federally required interviews with applicants as one reason for the improvement. Though the federal Food and Nutrition Service initially warned the state that pausing interviews put federal SNAP funding at risk, Etheridge said the state now has a waiver through June. Additionally, she said the division has now trained its staff on best practices for interviews to avoid more delays once the waiver expires.

“I guess what I’m saying is that we’re not waiting for any court actions to be identified,” she said. “We’re being very proactive to find efficiencies, and we’re doing our best to put them into action in order to get benefits to Alaskans who qualify for them as quickly as possible.”

She also pointed to other areas of improvement including a new online application form, a new simplified application for elderly people and efforts to modernize the state’s computer systems. 

There are two pending bills in the state Legislature that would require the state to implement broad-based categorical eligibility for SNAP. The state could also do it on its own without a change to the law, but Etheridge said the legacy mainframe computer system the department uses makes that difficult, and she said a switch to the streamlined eligibility system would have to wait for the planned IT upgrade regardless of whether new legislation passes.

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Eric Stone covers state government, tracking the Alaska Legislature, state policy and its impact on all Alaskans. Reach him at estone@alaskapublic.org.

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