Statewide slowdown in social services bring angst, not cheer, during holiday season

Division of Public Assistance application says processing could take up to 30 days, some families have waited for months
Division of Public Assistance application says processing could take up to 30 days, some families have waited for months
Published: Dec. 23, 2022 at 4:01 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Families across Alaska reported experiencing significant delays in receiving state benefits and assistance over the last few months from SNAP to childcare support.

Department of Health Communications Director Clinton Bennett offered a written statement explaining the DPA perspective on the backlog:

“The Division of Public Assistance (DPA) has a delay in the SNAP application process which affects approximately 8,000 households that applied from September 2022 to now,” Bennett wrote. “The division currently estimates that the backlog has resulted in a 90–120-day delay for regular processing of SNAP recertifications, which are being worked in date order.”

According to Bennett, there are three primary reasons for the delay. These include the watershed of effects from a state public health emergency declaration in July 2022, a high vacancy rate in DPA staffing, and major disruptions from a May 2021 cyberattack that interrupted automated services.

Several services have not returned to full automation or working order since the cyberattack: online and electronic notices, online renewal and recertification process, online application, manual issuance of emergency allotments for SNAP, manual processing of Medicaid auto renewals in EIS, manual processing of pandemic EBT, and 12-month certification for SNAP.

Another source of stress on the system since July 2022 was an interview requirement for all applicants, which was waived during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government allowed states to apply for the waiver again in October, so applications since that month did not experience a slowdown for that particular reason.

Kodiak resident and mother of two Kayla McCarthy said she’s waited months for childcare and financial support from the state. The process took so long that she’s been forced to find other ways to make ends meet.

“Every time we call the 1-800 number, there’s about 400 people in line,” McCarthy said.

She explained that the process itself seemed opaque, each service required separate procedures and applications, and information was not clear from the outset of the process.

“We almost just want to close the case completely because we’re forced to find other means of income right now,” McCarthy said. “It was in a time of need, now, four months ago.″

Chief of Advocacy and Public Policy for the Alaska Food Bank, Cara Durr, often liaises between recipients of social services such as food stamps. She says that she’s witnessed the backlog in the system, and the stress it places on the families and individuals caught in limbo.

“We’ve been seeing increases really over this last year, through our partners, a lot of that has to do with inflation and the higher costs we’re experiencing and the higher cost of food, gas, all sorts of things like that,″ Durr said.

Durr says she’s personally observed the delays in application processing taking up to months to conclude. However, Durr notes that it’s a multilayered and complex issue to tackle.

“We know one thing that’s contributing to this backlog, is the public health emergency ending in our state,” Durr said. “So with that comes some new requirements of the program that were waived during pandemic. So that really just translates into more work for the division that they have to do, more processing and I think that’s really part of what’s driving the backlog.″