State Makes Gains In Food Stamp Delivery

By CLAIRE STREMPLE
Alaska Beacon
    As of this week, the backlog of Alaskans waiting for the state to process their food stamp applications is down to just over 500. The state’s Division of Public Assistance is on track to be up to date by the end of the month, said Deb Etheridge, the division’s 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 towards more timely processing.”
    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 fall, the state stopped conducting phone interviews, a key part of the verification process for benefits that can also be time consuming. The United States 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 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.
    “I’ve had some conversations with FNS about how to bring Alaska into compliance and be successful. And I would say they’re working with us to develop that plan,” she said. “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 department has contracted Change Innovation Agency to develop that training. Work is underway.
    The division does do in-person interviews in its offices, many of which have remained closed after the pandemic. But Etheridge said they are moving towards opening more of them. The Wasilla office will be the next to reopen, in mid-March.
    She also noted that the number of online applications has been ticking up, which means time savings for the division and timely benefits for Alaskans. More than 3,000 people have used the application since it launched at the end of December.
    Etheridge said she also sees some “really positive things” in proposed legislation that is intended to increase access to food stamp benefits. If the bills become law, her division would not have to do asset verification with applicants which would increase efficiency in the office. The proposal would also increase the income threshold to 200% of the federal poverty level, which aligns with other benefits programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
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https://alaskabeacon.com/claire-stremple

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20 YEARS AGO

May 2004

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