Complaint says thousands going hungry

Complaint says thousands going hungry
Published: Jan. 21, 2023 at 6:23 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - After months of turmoil amid a backlog of food stamp applications, the Alaska Department of Health Division of Public Assistance now has another issue on its hands.

On Friday, 10 Alaskans filed a class-action lawsuit in the Alaska Superior Court against Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg, claiming she has “subjected thousands of Alaskans to ongoing hunger,” according to a recent complaint.

The plaintiffs, represented by the Northern Justice Project, National Center for Law and Economic Justice, and DLA Piper LLP, argue the state’s breakdowns in its handling of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, violate federal law, the United States Constitution, and the Alaska Constitution.

“The goal here is to get people food and to get people fed. It is a critical need,” said Saima Akhtar, NCLEJ senior attorney. “Every single person needs to eat every single day. And that’s what we’re aiming for. That is the goal.”

The 10 plaintiffs are grouped into three different classes. In addition to representing themselves, the plaintiffs represent “similarly situated low-income Alaskans seeking preliminary and permanent injunctive relief and declaratory relief.”

There are nine plaintiffs listed in the Untimely Eligibility Class, which includes all Alaskans who applied for SNAP benefits for the first time or applied for recertification and did not receive eligibility determinations quickly enough in the last two years. Federal law requires applicants to receive their food stamps within 30 days.

“Under the federal provisions of the SNAP program, from the time you put in a new application to the time you actually get your benefits and you can walk into a store and use them, for it to meet the federal processing requirements would be a 30-day period,” Akhtar said.

There is just one plaintiff listed in the Right-To-File Class. This includes anyone who was prevented from filing an application the first time they contacted the agency in the last two years.

“When there are many, many people in Alaska, who are not able to go into an office physically, who are so far away from the Department of Health district offices, that they can’t actually get to a physical location. and the phone lines are so inaccessible, that they can’t reach a worker ... they are not able to file on the first day they contact the agency,” Akhtar said.

One of the plaintiffs from the Untimely Eligibility Class is also in the Language Access Class. This includes all Alaskans who did not receive their application in their primary language as required by the SNAP Act in the last two years.

According to the complaint, the complainants are seeking timely processing of applications, written notices of delays in processing applications and eligibility, appropriate interpretation services and the ability to apply on the first day of contact.

Alaska’s News Source reported on the backlog in social services in December. At the time, the Division of Public Assistance wrote that there were several reasons for the delay, including a high vacancy rate in DPA staffing and disruptions from a May 2021 cyberattack. When Alaska’s News Source spoke with DPA previously they said the problems stemmed from the effects of a state public health emergency declaration in July 2022.

Alaska’s News Source reached out to the Department of Health seeking comment on Saturday but did not immediately hear back from the agency.