Alaska’s federal food stamp funding at risk, USDA letter warns

The state may lose funding if it continues to break federal rules

Bulk food purchased with the $1.68 million Gov. Mike Dunleavy put towards supporting food banks is staged for delivery in Food Bank of Alaska’s Anchorage warehouse on April 21, 2023. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Bulk food purchased with the $1.68 million Gov. Mike Dunleavy put towards supporting food banks is staged for delivery in Food Bank of Alaska’s Anchorage warehouse on April 21, 2023. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska’s Department of Health risks losing federal funding for its food stamp program, warned a letter from the United States Department of Agriculture on Tuesday.

It said the department is out of compliance with federal standards for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program due to what it described as “inefficient and ineffective administration.”

The Department of Health has struggled to manage a backlog of crisis proportions that began in 2022 and has left tens of thousands of Alaskans waiting months for critical food aid.

Commissioner Heidi Hedberg has said the backlog was caused by a cyberattack, outdated computer systems and a huge influx of paperwork after the state ended its public health emergency. Sources inside and outside the division have said the problem traces back much further and that chronic understaffing and deep workforce cuts in 2021 are to blame.

In December, Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed spending an additional $8.8 million on 30 additional full-time employees to process applications at the Division of Public Assistance and $5 million to bolster supplies at the state’s food banks.

The SNAP application process should include an application form, an interview with the applicant and a process to verify the applicant is eligible. The federal government allowed Alaska’s overworked Division of Public Assistance to pause interviews as an onslaught of post-pandemic recertifications caused its backlog to surge. When its backlog ballooned again this fall, Alaska’s Department of Health has suspended the requisite interviews to speed up its recertification process for benefits, even though the USDA told it not to do so.

The state informed the USDA that it would continue its waivers in late November and the USDA repeated its denial in early December, according to the letter.

“We really needed to take those dramatic steps in order to ensure that Alaskans can have access to food,” Division of Public Assistance Director Deb Etheridge said at the time.

USDA insists on interviews because they ensure households receive the correct amount of benefits. The letter pointed out that this step is critical in Alaska, where the payment error rate is the highest in the nation. Division Director Deb Etheridge has said this number was skewed by the waiver the state was granted last year.

Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg also told legislators that the division is authorizing food stamp recertifications without verifying the information in the applications if that information is not readily available. The letter warned this is also against the rules and is likely contributing to the state’s high rate of overpayments.

USDA Regional Administrator Jesus Mendoza Jr. warned that the violations could result in a suspension or “disallowance” of the federal funds the state uses to maintain the program. Further, he wrote that if there has been a major, systemic error in the state’s processing, it could leave Alaska on the hook to reimburse any overpayments.

He told the Department of Health it must immediately resume interviews for SNAP applications or recertifications and start verifying required information. He gave the department 14 days to do so.

In an email, Hedberg said the Department of Health has not yet responded to the 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,” she said. “We continue to work with USDA and our teams to outline a path forward that is achievable without compromising efficiency. We are not interested in creating a new backlog just so we can ‘check a box.’”

She added that the Division of Public Assistance has whittled the backlog down to 3,500 and is on track to be caught up by the end of the month — and that is their primary focus.

• Claire Stremple is a reporter based in Juneau who got her start in public radio at KHNS in Haines, and then on the health and environment beat at KTOO in Juneau. This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

More in News

The Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Encore docks in Juneau in October of 2022. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for t​​he Week of April 22

Here’s what to expect this week.

Rep. Andi Story (left, wearing gray), Rep. Sara Hannan (center, wearing purple) and Sen. Jesse Kiehl (wearing suit) talk with constituents following a legislative town hall on Thursday at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
All three members of Juneau’s legislative delegation seeking reelection

Reps. Andi Story and Sara Hannan, and Sen. Jesse Kiehl unopposed ahead of June 1 filing deadline

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Sunday, April 21, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

The “Newtok Mothers” assembled as a panel at the Arctic Encounter Symposium on April 11 discuss the progress and challenges as village residents move from the eroding and thawing old site to a new village site called Mertarvik. Photographs showing deteriorating conditions in Newtok are displayed on a screen as the women speak at the event, held at Anchorage’s Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Relocation of eroding Alaska Native village seen as a test case for other threatened communities

Newtok-to-Mertarvik transformation has been decades in the making.

Bailey Woolfstead, right, and her companion Garrett Dunbar examine the selection of ceramic and wood dishes on display at the annual Empty Bowls fundraiser on behalf of the Glory Hall at Centennial Hall on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Empty Bowls provides a full helping of fundraising for the Glory Hall

Annual soup event returns to Centennial Hall as need for homeless shelter’s services keeps growing.

Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon and her husband Greg. (Photo courtesy of the City and Borough of Juneau)
Greg Weldon, husband of Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon, killed in motorcycle accident Sunday morning

Accident occurred in Arizona while auto parts store co-owner was on road trip with friend

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Saturday, April 20, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Friday, April 19, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, April 18, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Most Read