Lawsuit seeks to eliminate Medicaid application backlog

Anchorage resident Jennifer Spencer is a student at University of Alaska Anchorage. She waited more than two months after applying for Medicaid to file a class-action lawsuit. The suit aims for the state to eliminate its Medicaid application backlog. (Photo courtesy Jennifer Spencer)

lawsuit aims to force the state government to close the backlog of thousands of applications for Medicaid. The lawsuit was moved to federal court from Anchorage Superior Court last week.

Anchorage resident Jennifer Spencer applied for Medicaid in December. Under Medicaid rules, she was supposed to know whether she was eligible within 30 days. The wait is 90 days for people who are applying for a disability determination.

Spencer is a social work student at University of Alaska Anchorage. She didn’t realize a long wait was unusual, but through a training program she learned about the Medicaid backlog.

“And so when I found out about it, I started talking more about it among my peers at school and people had similar stories,” Spencer said. “And I was just, like, ‘Wow, this is really like an issue, but no one’s talking about it, because they don’t know who’s going through it.’”

She filed a class-action lawsuit, with the help of the Northern Justice Project. The lawsuit cites state records that show at least one in three applications haven’t been processed in time for the past five years.

Spencer has asthma. She’s concerned that Alaskans who are sick aren’t getting the health care they need.

“And that’s the reason why this lawsuit is taking place,” Spencer said. “Because so many other people who have ongoing health issues who have applied, they’re not receiving the things they really need.”

Twenty-nine percent of Alaskans  — or 213,436 people as of April 1 — are covered by Medicaid and Denali KidCare.

The state has had a backlog stretching back to before when former Gov. Bill Walker expanded Medicaid eligibility in 2015. But the backlog grew after the expansion. In June, more than 15,000 applications had been waiting more than four months.

Division of Public Assistance Director Shawnda O’Brien said the backlog has been shrinking recently. There’s been a large decrease in the past month, from 9,479 applications waiting to be processed on March 1 to 5,935 on April 1.

This year’s budget added funding for 20 more workers to process applications. But while some of these positions have been filled, O’Brien said the money also allowed for more overtime for long-time workers.

“The staff that we have on board have really made tremendous progress in just addressing the backlog issues through overtime,” she said.

O’Brien said the state’s goal is to eliminate the backlog. But it may grow in July. That’s when social service benefit reductions proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy would take effect, which will require state workers to recheck the eligibility of residents for public assistance programs.

“I can’t really speculate on exactly when we might be able to say successfully that we are out of backlog, but I do think that, given the amount of progress that’s been being made, it’s inevitable that will happen within the next year,” O’Brien said.

James Davis with the Anchorage-based Northern Justice Project is Spencer’s attorney for the class-action suit. The firm focuses on representing low- to middle-income Alaskans in complex lawsuits against the state and federal governments and large corporations.

“The state’s known about this for years,” Davis said. “There’s been much wringing of hands. But the state hasn’t been able to do the simple thing, which is to clear up the backlog.”

Spencer, the plaintiff, said that when she gets her social work degree, she wants to work with homeless people in a hospital or other setting. And she hopes that her lawsuit will ensure that future clients received health care in a timely manner.