State backlog means long wait for health coverage for some Alaskans

Jill Yordy and her daughter Raven, 5, are waiting for an application for Denali KidCare to be completed. The family is moving to Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Jill Yordy)

There are 20,000 unresolved applications for Alaskans waiting for Medicaid and other public assistance programs.

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The state is taking action to reduce the backlog. But some people have been waiting for a long time.

Anchorage resident Jill Yordy has been waiting since January to learn whether her five-year-old daughter Raven has qualified for Denali KidCare. That’s the state and federal program that provides health care to children in lower-income households, much like Medicaid does for adults.

Yordy recently spent a day trying to learn more about Raven’s application. Since she couldn’t reach anyone on the phone, she waited in line at the Division of Public Assistance Anchorage office.

“How are people supposed to keep jobs if they’re required to stand in these lines all day, without knowing when they’ll be seen, without knowing when their case will get an answer and you have to just stay there?” Yordy asked. “You’re chained to that office until your name is called, or you miss your chance.“

Raven isn’t alone. More than 15,000 applications have been waiting more than four months to be processed. Some have it worse. One hundred and two have been waiting for more than three years.

The state leaders who work on public assistance say the size of the backlog overstates the number of people actually waiting. The state uses two different computer systems to handle the applications. And they don’t always talk with each other when cases are resolved.

Juneau resident Corey Peratrovich has a unique perspective on the backlog. Until February, he worked in a Division of Public Assistance office, including answering phone calls from those in the backlog.

“There were times when I had over 100 calls per day … and they are very upset,” Peretrovich said. “There was a number of people who would use choice four-letter words and there were other people in tears.”

Peratrovich left the job and applied for Medicaid in February. Now he’s part of the backlog. It’s been a confusing experience.

“I’ve received a letter saying that I am approved for Medicaid; I was not approved for Medicaid; and then I was approved for Medicaid,” Peratrovich said. “So I received two letters saying approval, one letter saying denial and all these letters came in at the same time.”

On the other end of the process is Matt Stangley. He’s been working on the backlog for the state as the chief of policy and program development for the division. He said the job of processing the applications has been stressful. The attrition rate doubled after the backlog grew four years ago.

“They take these positions because they want to help people in need, right?” Stangley said. “They’re also human, so it’s hard not to take this job home. And they realize that there’s a large amount of work to be done, and they know the work that it takes to do that. So certainly that’s going to weigh on them and increase the stress that they feel.”

The state plans to hire 20 new workers to handle the applications. The Legislature approved half the 40 workers Gov. Bill Walker’s administration requested.

Stangley hopes that having more workers will improve the morale for the rest of the workers and reduce the attrition rate.

“We’re grateful for the positions that we got,” Stangley said. “And we’re going to do the absolute best that we can with them. And then, obviously, we’ll report back to the Legislature next year.”

Stangley said the backlog began to grow when the federal Affordable Care Act was rolled out. At the same time, a new state enrollment system wasn’t ready. People applied, didn’t hear back, and then they reapplied, adding to the backlog.

Stangley said the state is working to speed up the applications for those with urgent needs. The state has hotlines to assist pregnant women and Alaskans requiring urgent care apply for public assistance.

Stangley said the division has emphasized meeting applicants in person, rather than answering the phone. The new workers will be assigned to reduce the backlog and to rural offices.

Jill Yordy won’t be waiting much longer for Raven’s Denali KidCare application to be processed. She and Raven are moving to Colorado. She would have liked to have seen the Legislature approve more workers to clear the backlog.

“It sounds like a recipe for burnout to me for those employees,” Yordy said.

Yordy is a former legislative aide who was statewide coordinator for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. She said legislative candidates should do more for those in the backlog.

“I think they need to spend at least one day of their campaign standing in line with everyone who’s waiting to get assistance and hearing their stories and hearing the struggles this backlog causes,” Yordy said.

The state will start hiring the new workers in July.