A sign for a store that accepts food stamps and exchange benefits transfer cards is seen in this 2019 photo. Alaska has being going through a year-long crisis in processing applications for benefits. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

A sign for a store that accepts food stamps and exchange benefits transfer cards is seen in this 2019 photo. Alaska has being going through a year-long crisis in processing applications for benefits. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Alaska faces new backlog in processing food stamp benefits after clearing older applications

ANCHORAGE — An Alaska state agency faces a new backlog in processing applications for people seeking food stamp benefits, more than a year after it first fell behind in recertifying applicants.

The current backlog of new and returning applications totals about 6,000, the Anchorage Daily News reported. It was created after resources were focused on clearing an older backlog in applications from Alaskans who in some cases waited as long as 11 months for benefits from the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, said Deb Etheridge, director of the Alaska Division of Public Assistance.

Etheridge said officials from the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service directed her agency to prioritize the older applications, even if meant newer applications might get delayed.

The state also has resumed interviews and income verifications that were waived as part of the federal public health emergency related to the pandemic.

“We knew that alone would also create probably some additional delays because it’s additional work that the team is needing to take on,” said Cara Durr, chief of advocacy and public policy at the Food Bank of Alaska.

While Durr and Etheridge said the current delays have not been as long as those during the original backlog, they are still affecting Alaskans.

“We’ve heard from people waiting two to three months, which feels pretty different than somebody waiting six to eight months. None of it’s great, but I think people in this backlog have been waiting for a shorter time,” Durr said.

Delays at the public assistance division first surfaced late last year, when news outlets reported thousands of Alaskans had been waiting months for food stamps or other benefits. Since then, Etheridge took over the agency, a lawsuit was filed over the delays and the state was warned of potential penalties from the federal government.

The state reported in August — a year after the delays first began — that it had cleared the original backlog. Officials had blamed that backlog on cascading events, compounded by staffing and technology issues within the state health department.

Etheridge said the division is doing what it can to avoid a larger backlog or longer delays, including hiring more eligibility technicians. But training them has taken time, and progress has been slow, she said.

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