A sign for a store that accepts food stamps and exchange benefits transfer cards is seen in this 2019 photo. Ten Alaskans are suing the state over its failure to provide food stamps within the time frames required by federal law. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images via Alaska Beacon)

Lawsuit says Alaska Department of Health exposed thousands to hunger risk by not giving food aid

Complaint filed Friday alleges some families have waited four months for nutrition assistance.

Ten Alaskans are suing the state, saying it failed to provide food stamps within the time frames required by federal law. The complaint was filed Friday in Superior Court in Anchorage against Alaska Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg. The lawsuit said that in her role as commissioner of a department that failed to provide needed services, Hedberg “has subjected thousands of Alaskans to ongoing hunger and continues to do so.”

Some families have waited four months to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, also known as food stamps, the complaint alleged. In the absence of these benefits, people have sought other means to get food or make food last longer.

“We’ve got people who are relying on family members. We’ve got people who are relying on food pantries. We’ve got people who are eating less so they can feed their kids, trying to juggle their bills and decide whether they’re going to pay for their heat or their groceries,” said Saima Akhtar, senior attorney at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, one of the firms representing the plaintiffs in this lawsuit.

“People are taking as many different avenues as they can to take care of their families and eat right now, and it shouldn’t be that hard,” Akhtar said.

The complaint asserted the delay is due to the “immense delays and chaos of the Alaska Department of Health,” and pointed to the unresolved “massive backlog of unprocessed SNAP cases that has left thousands of Alaskans without critical food assistance in the coldest months of the year.”

While 10 Alaskans are named in the class action suit – residents from Anchorage, Marshall, Petersburg, Wasilla, Bethel, Palmer, Nome and Delta Junction – they represent thousands of other Alaskans who are facing the same issue.

Under federal law, the Department of Health must provide ongoing SNAP benefits to eligible applicants no later than 30 days after the date of application. Households that qualify for expedited processing are required to get their benefits within seven days of the application being filed. Some families have been waiting months, the complaint said.

The lawsuit asked the court to find that the Alaska Department of Health has violated the federal SNAP Act and violated due process clauses of the federal and state constitutions. The suit wants the court to order the Department of Health to process people’s SNAP applications and recertifications within the timeframe required by federal law, to allow people to apply and seek benefits on the first day they contact the agency, and to ensure that there are adequate language interpretation services and translations of documents for those who need it.

Essentially, Akhtar said, the injunctive relief is asking the state to “do the things that they are legally obligated to in operating the program within the federal guidelines.”

The plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages.

“They want to get fed,” Akhtar said. “And they also have the opportunity to try and influence the system so that this is not happening again, so that their siblings and their children and communities aren’t going hungry, too.”

In an email on Friday, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said, “The Commissioner and DOH cannot comment on the complaint or the lawsuit because we have not seen the complaint or been served in the lawsuit.” The spokesperson didn’t immediately answer other questions regarding the backlog or its cause, or availability of language translation services for SNAP applications and forms.

Chair of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, said his committee will hear from the Department of Health about the food stamp application backlog during its meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 24.

It’s a huge issue, he said: “We’re talking about, you know, people’s sustenance… It’s a health safety issue.”

“We want to know, basically, what can we do in the Legislature to help you fix this problem and how fast can it be fixed and resolved? And those are the issues that I want to focus on,” Wilson said.

• Lisa Phu covers justice, education, and culture for the Alaska Beacon. Previously, she spent eight years as an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Juneau Empire, KTOO Public Media, KSTK, and Wrangell Sentinel. 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.

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