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State failing to process timely cash assistance benefits for hundreds of elderly and disabled Alaskans, lawsuit says

Jan. 24—The Alaska Division of Public Assistance is months behind in processing hundreds of applications for a program that provides cash assistance to thousands of vulnerable Alaskans, according to new state data uncovered as part of an ongoing class-action lawsuit.

The lawsuit, first filed in April by an Anchorage-based civil rights law firm, claimed that the Department of Health violated state law by not processing the majority of applications to Alaska's adult public assistance program, or APA, within the 30 days required by state regulations.

The adult public assistance program pays up to $1,276 per month to those who are eligible, according to the Department of Health. During the last fiscal year, an average of 14,601 Alaskans were receiving an average of about $300 in monthly aid, often alongside other state and federal benefits.

As of last month, nine months after the case was filed, there were still hundreds of disabled, blind and elderly low-income Alaskans who had been waiting more than 30 days — including several who'd been waiting up to a year or more — for the state to process their applications to the state's adult public assistance program, according to state data included in court documents this month.

That backlog had reached 1,296 in early December, down from 1,769 in April when the lawsuit was first filed, the court documents showed. During the previous fiscal year, just 36.2% of applicants to the program had their benefits processed in a timely way — a percentage that Northern Justice Project, which filed the lawsuit, said has yet to improve.

On Friday, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Adolf Zeman certified the case as a class-action lawsuit and scheduled oral arguments to be heard next month as part of a request by the plaintiffs' attorneys to issue a preliminary injunction in the case.

Nick Feronti, an attorney with Northern Justice Project, said he found the latest data from the state "jarring," and that during the oral arguments scheduled for next month, he planned to ask the court to require the state to begin processing the applications in a timely way.

"I'd think that after months and months — the state knows that the court is going to be watching," he said. "And instead, the data shows that no, this is still pretty much as big of a problem as it was when we filed the case."

"All we're asking is for the court to make the state follow their own law," Feronti said.

To qualify for the adult public assistance program, Alaskans must be blind, disabled or age 65 or older. Their monthly income must also fall below a certain limit: For an individual, they must earn less than $1,305 per month, and below $1,843 for a couple. Applicants must have less than $2,000 in assets; for couples, the asset limit is $3,000.

"The whole purpose of adult public assistance is subsistence," said Feronti, who said the money is used to help vulnerable people afford rent, car payments, heating and other bills, and food.

"It's a very meager amount of money, especially in today's economy. But I think it's supposed to be this bridge, where it helps people who can't get by have just enough," Feronti said.

The delays come at the same time the Division of Public Assistance is also struggling to process thousands of applications for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP. As of this month, more than 8,000 Alaskans had been waiting for the state to process those benefits, as part of the second major backlog for that program in a single year.

The Northern Justice Project was involved in a separate lawsuit challenging the original food stamps delays in federal court, and reached a settlement with the state in 2020 over a Medicaid backlog.

In December, the law firm asked the state to reopen the food stamps lawsuit after the state again fell behind in processing thousands of applications, Feronti said.

State officials have attributed continued application delays for state assistance to staff shortages, an outdated IT system, and most recently, a renewed federal interview requirement for all food stamps recipients that the state has since waived.

Division of Public Assistance director Deb Etheridge said in an email that the agency "continues to prioritize the processing of all assistance applications," and that eligibility technicians "have been working hard to clear the backlog of SNAP applications while doing our very best to also stay current on applications, especially those that meet the expedited requirements."

"Dedicating some of our (eligibility technicians) to process SNAP cases doesn't neglect APA processing, since they handle all case programs, including APA," she wrote.

In an emailed statement, Department of Law spokeswoman Patty Sullivan said the state "continues to actively participate in the litigation process and we are looking forward to upcoming oral arguments" next month.