Original state benefits backlog finally cleared, health department says

FastCast morning digital headlines for Friday, Sept. 15, 2023.
Published: Sep. 15, 2023 at 3:14 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A backlog of state benefits that stretches back almost a year has finally been cleared up through this summer, according to health department officials.

The delays in processing claims for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, began early last fall and left many recipients in the lurch when applying for benefits including food stamps.

The most recent update showed that all SNAP applications prior to June 2023 have been taken care of, with all new applications since then now becoming the focus.

Roughly 13% of Alaska’s population — about 95,000 people — were receiving SNAP benefits before the problems began. A statement released Friday said the backlog left over 14,000 Alaskans waiting past the federal deadline of 30 days.

Last month, Alaska Division of Public Assistance Director Beth Etheridge said the state had mostly caught up with the outstanding applications, adding that about 1,500 older recertifications remained to be processed along with first-time applicants from spring 2023. Etheridge said that the goal was to be completely caught up by the end of October.

Etheridge said in a video by the health department that they would now be shifting priorities.

“Now we can turn to other programs, and we’re developing strategies so we’re not in this situation again,” Etheridge said.

The situation had gotten so dire that in March, Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed a bill designed to fast-track the process by delivering roughly $11.5 million to the Division of Public Assistance, with much of that going to boost hiring for specialized employees that would take care of the backlog. Dunleavy also awarded $1.68 million to four regional food banks to help purchase food in February.

In addition to the massive delays, the state also suffered a plethora of payment errors over the fiscal year 2022. Federal data showed Alaska’s error rate at roughly 57% — about five times higher than the national rate.

The state partially blamed the backlog on a cyber attack in May 2021 that forced the public assistance department to redirect efforts on recovering data.