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'Ineffective and inefficient': Alaska gets another federal admonition as food stamp backlog drags on

Feb. 2—Alaska's continued food stamp backlog this week prompted a second sharply worded letter from the federal government cautioning that the state's "ineffective and inefficient" handling of federal food aid could result in penalties without prompt action.

The letter comes at a time when thousands of Alaska families, many with children, have been stuck waiting months without critical, federally funded food stamps benefits amid two separate backlogs at the state Division of Public Assistance in a single year.

Facing rising rates of food insecurity, many Alaskans have had to make difficult decisions about whether to pay for food or other necessities like rent or utilities, often relying on food banks while waiting on their food stamp applications to be processed. Some have reported going hungry as the backlogs have persisted.

The letter, dated Tuesday and addressed to Heidi Hedberg, Alaska's health commissioner, demands that the state immediately resume interviews for all food stamp recipients — a practice the state paused in November in an attempt to stem the second rapidly growing backlog.

In the letter, U.S. Department of Agriculture western regional administrator Jesus Mendoza Jr. wrote that Alaska currently has the highest payment error rate in the nation. The USDA oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps, distributed by all 50 states.

"Interviews are critical for providing program access because they aid in determining eligibility, ensuring households receive the correct benefits, providing applicants with important program information, and following up on missing or questionable information," Mendoza wrote.

"If (the state health department) fails to comply with the requirements outlined in this advance notification to the satisfaction of (the federal Food & Nutrition Service), FNS will take further steps, which could result in the suspension or disallowance of Federal funding for State SNAP administrative expenses and/or liability for overpayments," Mendoza wrote.

Hedberg said in a statement Thursday night that the Alaska Department of Health hasn't yet responded to the USDA letter.

"We remain in complete transparency in our communications with FNS and USDA regarding our areas of focus and concern as well as our evolving plans to address them," Hedberg said. "We continue to work with USDA and our teams to outline a path forward that is achievable without compromising efficiency."

The state is planning to train staff on interview duties over time in a phased approach, Hedberg said. "As staff are trained, we will slowly resume interviews, as they are ready to do so with efficiency, so that we don't slip back into another backlog," she said.

In December, Division of Public Assistance director Deb Etheridge said the state had made the decision to pause interviews, knowing that they would fall out of compliance with federal law, in an attempt to speed up application processing and stop the backlog from growing.

At the time, the backlog was impacting at least one in 10 Alaskans who participate in the program. In Alaska, more than 92,000 people participate in SNAP. About a third are children, and most have incomes below the federal poverty line.

Hedberg said Thursday that just over 3,500 applications remain in the backlog, which is their primary focus, and "we are on target to complete this work by the end of February."

The latest backlog started to emerge around the same time the state said it finished clearing an older, unprecedented backlog at the Division of Public Assistance.

At its peak, that original backlog affected more than 14,000 Alaskans and their families, who were forced to rely on food banks, food pantries and help from friends and neighbors for months while they waited as long as 10 months for the state to process their benefits.

Federal law requires the state to process those benefits in 30 days.

The delays extended to other public assistance benefits the state division handles, including Medicaid, heating assistance and benefits for seniors.

Alaska received a similar letter in March, near the height of the previous backlog. At the time, USDA officials described the type of notification in that letter and the one sent this week as a step short of a formal warning process.