Heidi Hedberg, then-interim commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health, speaks at a news conference on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022, at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau. She has since become the commissioner-designee. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
After a lawsuit from Alaskans in need of food aid, the Alaska Department of Health has agreed to cut the waiting list for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by half in six months.
The action was among several conditions in an agreement announced Tuesday between the state and 10 plaintiffs who filed a class-action lawsuit against the state over extensive delays in what’s commonly referred to as the food-stamp program.
In exchange for the agreement, the plaintiffs agreed to stay — or hold — further legal action until Oct. 31. If the state fails to hold to the agreement, the lawsuit will continue.
“I’m happy with the result in the immediate term,” said Nick Feronti, an attorney with the Fairbanks-based Northern Justice Project who is representing the plaintiffs.
“It’s probably the fastest pathway we have to fixing things on a system-wide basis,” he said.
Asked whether he believes the state can meet its pledge, he said he does.
“We have moderate confidence they should be able to meet it. Hopefully, they can exceed it,” he said.
In a prepared statement released by email, Department of Health Commissioner Heidi Hedberg and Attorney General Treg Taylor said the state is doing everything it can to eliminate the waiting list, which stood at 10,598 people as of April 20.
“Alaska is committed to taking the necessary steps to resolve this backlog and get benefits to Alaskans who need them. We are continuing to hire more employees and bring on additional support,” Hedberg said.
The text of the agreement says the state has signed a contract for 75 contract workers to help alleviate the backlog, and that it expects all of them to begin working no later than July 1.
“The state is doing everything it can to resolve this issue,” Taylor said in the statement.
Alaska’s backlog began growing last year, as the state exited the COVID-19 pandemic emergency and congressionally authorized changes to the SNAP program ended.
Feronti said the backlog was exacerbated by some optional choices by the state. One example, addressed in this week’s agreement: Many food-stamp recipients were required to reapply every six months, more frequently than federal law requires.
In some parts of Alaska, the backlog led to widespread hunger and even a few cases of malnutrition that required hospitalization, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
The backlog is smaller than it was at its peak, according to state-published figures, but state food banks are still reporting high demand.
Alaska isn’t alone in dealing with the problem.
“Overall, there are delays and access problems in a number of parts of the country right now,” said Saima Akhtar, a senior attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.
Akhtar is a co-counsel with Feronti on the lawsuit, and her organization has filed a similar lawsuit in Missouri. Alaska’s problems are worse than those in Missouri, she said.
“The scope of this problem is really extreme,” Akhtar said.
A more involved government, in a different place and different time could have addressed the issue proactively, Feronti said, but “we don’t have a proactive state government right now.”
“The state has known for years, from its own data, that this was a growing problem,” he said. “Maybe we can learn to be more proactive.”
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