By Claire Stremple
Alaska Beacon 

State almost clear of backlogged food stamp applications


February 28, 2024

As of last week, the backlog of Alaskans waiting for the state to process their food stamp applications was down to just over 500 — a big improvement over the 14,000 unresolved applications of a year ago.

The state’s Division of Public Assistance is on track to be up to date by the end of the month, said Deb Etheridge, division director.

In an interview, Etheridge described how the state is balancing the need to comply with federal regulations — Alaska has been warned it’s at risk of losing federal funding for failing to comply — with getting food aid to Alaskans in need.

As the division gets closer to the finish line, Etheridge has her eyes on a future without delays for the state’s most vulnerable residents. She said it is one thing to be out of the backlog, and another thing to stay out of it.

“If we want to stay out of the backlog, we’ll have to make sure we get closer to processing cases within the first 10 days of application. So we are not taking our eye off the ball,” she said. “We are staying strong and keeping moving forward to stay current and actually work toward more timely processing.”

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The division has a federal obligation to process applications within 30 days.

Etheridge said the Department of Health has responded to an advanced warning letter from the federal government that threatened the state’s funding for the program if “inefficient and ineffective administration” continued.

As the backlog spiked last year, the state stopped conducting phone interviews, a key part of the verification process for benefits that can also be time consuming. The U.S. Department of Agriculture told the state those must resume.

Etheridge said she is not ready to open up phone interviews for applicants yet — they currently slow down the process too much. So she has pitched a plan to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to increase training for her staff as she phases the interviews back in, with an aim to be fully compliant with federal guidelines by May.

“One of the tenets of success is that I need to be able to train my staff on how to do effective interviewing, so that it’s not taking that additional amount of time.”

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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