Alaska’s SNAP payment error rates spike over division’s use of expired certification

Alaska’s SNAP payment error rates spike over division’s use of expired certification
Published: Jul. 17, 2023 at 7:49 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - New federal data released last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services shows an alarming rate of payment errors in Alaska’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as SNAP benefits, in fiscal year 2022.

The data, published Jun. 30, shows the state’s error rate at 56.97% — nearly five times higher than the national average of 11.54%.

While no data was published in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 public health emergency, the three years prior — 2017, 2018, and 2019 — averaged an error rate of 8.28% in the state.

The Alaska Department of Health cites a misinterpretation of a waiver application — that allows an extension of certification dates — as the cause of the inflated error rate for 2022, which was measured between October 2021 through September 2022. According to the department’s director of communications, Shirley Sakaye, 192 active cases out of the 680 that were reviewed “had to be labeled an error due to the Division [of Public Assistance] incorrect usage of an expired certification.”

Sakaye said the federal calculation included additional factors that differ from state data and that the procedural error greatly impacted Alaska’s overall error rate and that the issue was corrected in July 2022.

Director of the Division of Public Assistance, Deb Etheridge, said the rate should return to previous averages within a few years, and that state data shows that had the procedural error not occurred, the rate likely would have landed at around 13%.

“Because we were aware of the misinterpretation of the policy we were expecting the error,” Etheridge said. “We were aware of the number of cases that fell out of compliance because of that misinterpretation of policy, so it wasn’t a surprise to us.”

The Division of Public Assistance has been dealing with an ongoing backlog of SNAP benefits for months.

In February, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration awarded $1.68 million to four regional food banks to buy food in bulk to distribute to hungry communities around the state. Cara Durr, chief of advocacy and public policy at the Food Bank of Alaska, said the program is just wrapping up now.

“We have sent food statewide and it’s been a great success,” Durr said.

Food Bank of Alaska has been feeling the effects of the SNAP backlogs as people waiting on their benefits have been turning to other resources for food. The food bank has around 150 partners statewide that includes food pantries, soup kitchens, and meal programs that don’t necessarily have eligibility requirements.

While Durr believes the 56.97% error rate is likely a one-off due to the division’s use of the expired waiver application, she said the issue points to a need to make the program more accessible.

“We’re always, you know, encouraging the state to take options that make it easier for them and easier for the people applying,” Durr said. “Fortunately, the state has taken a lot of these and is making really great headway on the backlog and implementing some of these streamlining measures.”