Alaska’s monthslong delay dispersing federally funded food stamps to thousands of families has triggered a stern warning from the federal government that penalties could follow without prompt action.
Alaska is the only state to receive such a warning, issued in a five-page letter sent last month to the state’s health commissioner-designee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to an agency spokesman. The department oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps, distributed by all 50 states.
In the letter to commissioner-designee Heidi Hedberg, USDA western regional administrator Jesus Mendoza Jr. said he is reiterating “grave concerns about the Alaska Division of Public Assistance’s administration of SNAP.”
More than 92,000 Alaskans rely on SNAP to feed their families, and by January, many new and repeat applicants were not getting their applications processed in a timely way as required by law, according to the letter: USDA found delays in nearly 60% of one group of benefit recertifications.
The problems at the center of the federal warning first surfaced in late December, when multiple Alaska news outlets reported on major delays within the Division of Public Assistance, which processes the federal food stamp program. At that point, thousands of Alaskans had already been waiting months to receive SNAP benefits.
Nearly six months later, the state still has not cleared the backlog, and in many parts of the state — including in rural Alaska — residents and advocates have reported dire impacts of the continued delays.
In an interview last week, Hedberg said the division has already taken many of the actions the USDA recommended and the Alaska Department of Health has been working closely with the federal agency in weekly calls — something Mendoza said he requested — to address the backlog.
“We were not surprised by receiving this letter,” she said.
Hedberg said Wednesday there were currently around 9,000 Alaskans whose food stamp applications from this fall and winter still had not been processed, a number that includes both brand-new applicants and those attempting to recertify existing benefits, mostly from December and January.
She estimated it would probably take two more months to clear the backlog based on how long each application was still taking — around an hour for each one.
‘The urgency of the current situation’
USDA officials say the letter Alaska’s top health official received is a step short of any official warning process, but the state could face financial penalties and reduced federal funds if the backlog and continued delays aren’t addressed quickly.
While many states have experienced minor processing delays, receiving a warning letter of this kind is very unusual, and reflects the seriousness of Alaska’s processing delays, officials say.
The letter lists corrective actions to address the backlog, including increasing agency and call center staffing, improving the division’s payment error rate — which they say is the highest in the nation — and making progress on an online application for food stamps and other benefits.
Mendoza also requested that the state include a strategy for solutions to “to address the long-term sustainability of SNAP, such as, funding included in the Governor’s FY2024 Proposed budget and/or legislative proposals that address the long-term solutions.”
The letter notes that officials also have heard from advocates and other sources that the state is failing to provide expedited service as required by law for applicant households with little to no income and resources.
Mendoza stresses “the urgency of the current situation” and requests the state submit a corrective action plan within two weeks of receiving the letter to outline the steps officials plan to take to resolve the problem as quickly as possible.
“We remain concerned that the current challenges DPA is facing in administering SNAP as evidenced by a large backlog, timeliness, (and) program access issues are preventing DPA from meeting the critical food needs of needy Alaskans,” he states.
What the state is doing
Hedberg said Alaska submitted a corrective action plan a few weeks after receiving the USDA letter.
The state’s plan includes implementing an online application for SNAP benefits scheduled to go live by December, assigning 16 staff members to focus on the backlog, permanently lengthening recertification periods for SNAP recipients from six months to 12 beginning in July, and continuing to hire both new and temporary staff, she said.
All new SNAP recertification applications from February, March and April are now being automatically renewed for six months as a way to prevent the backlog from getting even bigger, Hedberg said.
“I made the decision to do that because of the imminent life, health and safety concerns facing Alaskans,” she said.
That action wasn’t taken sooner, Hedberg said, because the state’s IT system lacks the capacity to retroactively process automatic recertifications and federal officials initially denied a waiver request.
Last month, the state also announced a $1.7 million grant to the Food Bank of Alaska and its partners to help stock food banks and pantries statewide struggling to meet the increased demand as Alaskans wait for their SNAP benefits.
Nick Feronti, an attorney with one of the groups suing the state over SNAP delays, called the USDA recommendations “common sense,” and said he was hopeful the state would be able to work through the backlog in a timely way.
Still, he said, people still going without food after so many months was unacceptable.
“Respectfully, the state should have tried out these fixes a long time ago,” Feronti, an attorney with the Northern Justice Project, said in an email. “We are hopeful that our lawsuit, and the involvement of USDA, will spur the state to actually follow through on fixing this crisis.”