Division of Public Assistance hit with lawsuit for failure to process backlog of aid applications
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Department of Health’s Division of Public Assistance has struggled to get Alaskans the food stamps they need, and now the adult public assistance program is falling behind too — causing the department to be with another class action lawsuit on Monday.
The Adult Public Assistance program provides cash assistance to disabled Alaskans near the poverty line in an effort to help them remain independent, but a new class action lawsuit filed by the Northern Justice Project alleges the division is failing to disperse those benefits, in violation of Alaska law, that requires the department to act on applications within 30 days of filing.
“There’s a huge delay in processing those applications, and so some of our most vulnerable neighbors can’t get just that little bit of cash they need that could be the difference between paying a cell phone bill or getting food ... or paying for housing,” said attorney Nick Feronti, who represents the plaintiffs with the Northern Justice Project in the lawsuit.
The state’s benefits backlog has stretched on since last fall and has been hampered by thousands of applications, some of which have been filed for months.
Feronti says it’s a tough problem impacting the most vulnerable people in Alaska, especially with the cost of living in the state.
Natilia Edwards is a beneficiary of the program who said she filed for assistance in February.
As of Monday, she had yet to receive a decision or disbursement from the department. Edwards is currently in chemotherapy and says that having the extra money would make a big difference.
“It makes it hard for us to one; have hope to keep going, and two; continue to trust in the state for services, just in general,” Edwards said. “If we can’t do such a small thing here, how are we trusting you to do anything else?”
Patty Sullivan, the Director of Communications for the Department of Law, said late Monday afternoon that the state has just become aware of the lawsuit.
“The department also acknowledges that it is currently not processing applications within the timeframes we would like,” Sullivan wrote. “The department is working hard to improve on this front and has taken major steps since the beginning of the year toward getting back on track with processing applications.”
The lawsuit seeks a court order that would pressure the department to comply with the legal requirements for processing applications in 30 days.
According to Sullivan, the Department of Public Assistance is also in the process of hiring and training 30 temporary workers and has requested funding from the legislature to improve the application process. Gov. Mike Dunleavy last month fast-tracked a bill to move $11.5 million to the division to get through the backlog quicker, with $6.8 million of that going to temporary workers.
Feronti says that a lot of people in Alaska are proud, and often have a hard time asking for help — making the delay in benefit disbursement sting even more.
“When people do finally say, ‘Oh I do need help, because I’m blind or elderly or disabled,’ I think they expect the state to be there as a cushion,” Feronti said. “They finally say I need help, and when it takes forever, and when they don’t hear back, it’s all the more crushing.”
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