Report: More staff needed for Alaska public assistance backlog

Among other recommendations, the 26-page Alaska Ombudsman’s report released Monday says “additional staff is critical to addressing (the Division of Public Assistance) backlog and lack of communications capacity.” (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media photo)

An investigation of complaints against the Alaska Division of Public Assistance found several major problems causing aggravation for thousands of Alaskans.

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According to the state ombudsman’s investigation report released Monday, the Division of Public Assistance is swamped with applications and has failed to meet state and federal mandates for processing them in a timely manner. The report also says members of the public have had great difficulty getting responses to questions and that the division’s processing for long-term care is “inefficient and ineffective.”

State Ombudsman Kate Burkhart said division staff are focused on helping people and doing the best they can with the resources they have. One of the most crucial recommendations in the report is to add personnel to deal with the communication problems and a backlog roughly 20,000 applications deep, Burkhart said.

“I think the division is at a place where they have to work their way out of the backlog,” Burkhart said. “They can’t manage their way out of it. They have to have the staff adequate to meet the demand, and the division has documented an increase in demand through increased applications for benefits like food stamps and Medicaid.”

The report says the Division of Public Assistance has already been working on many of the issues identified during the investigation, including streamlining its systems for processing applications and making plans to deal with documents more efficiently. But both Burkhart and Division Director Monica Windom said eliminating the backlog is unlikely without adding dozens of new positions.

Windom said she’s keenly aware that budget cuts in recent years have put an increased focus on reducing state government. She said the division has been trying various strategies the last couple years and until recently, was reluctant to ask for more staff.

“Because we know it’s a tough ask,” Windom said. “We have not made the progress. We do eliminate some of the backlog every month, but we do add to the backlog every month, because just the number of cases are just too high for the staff we have to get the work done.”

It remains unclear if the Legislature will fund additional positions, which Gov. Bill Walker has requested.

A conference committee is still considering different versions of the state operating budget from the House and Senate. The House’s version would fund 41 temporary workers at the Division of Public Assistance, while the Senate’s budget does not include any funding for the positions.