Lawsuit says Alaska Department of Health has put thousands at risk of hunger by not providing food aid

A sign for a store that accepts Food Stamps and Exchange Benefit Transfer Card 2019 photo. (Photo by Scott Haynes / Getty Images)

JUNO, Alaska (Alaska Beacon) – A complaint filed Friday alleges some families have waited four months for nutrition assistance.

Ten are suing the state of Alaska, saying it failed to provide food stamps within the time frame required by federal law. The complaint was filed Friday in Superior Court in Anchorage against Heidi Hedberg, Alaska’s health commissioner. The lawsuit states that in his role as commissioner of a department that failed to provide essential services, Hedberg “subjected thousands of Alaskans to relentless hunger and continues to do so.”

The complaint alleges that some families have waited four months to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps. In the absence of these benefits, people have sought other means to obtain food or to preserve food for longer periods of time.

“We have people who are relying on family members. We have people who are relying on food pantries. We have people who are eating less so they can feed their kids, grabbing their bills.” trying to make ends meet and decide whether they’re going to pay 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 the lawsuit. One of

“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 states that the delay is due to “the massive delay and lawlessness of the Alaska Department of Health”, and pointed to an unresolved “massive backlog of unprocessed SNAP cases” that has left thousands of Alaskans without vital food supplies in the coldest months. left without assistance. The year.”

While the class action suit names 10 Alaskans — residents of Anchorage, Marshall, Petersburg, Wasilla, Bethel, Palmer, Nome and Delta Junction — they represent thousands of other Alaskans facing the same issue.

Under federal law, the Department of Health must provide current SNAP benefits to eligible applicants within 30 days of the date of application. Households that qualify for expedited processing are required to receive their benefits within seven days of the application being filed. The complaint states that some families have been waiting for months.

The lawsuit asked the court to find that the Alaska Department of Health violated the federal SNAP Act and the due process clauses of the federal and state constitutions. The suit wants the court to order the health department to process people’s SNAP applications and re-certifications within the time frame required by federal law, allowing people to contact the agency on the first day to apply for and receive benefits. , and to ensure that there are adequate language interpretation services and translation of documents for those who need them.

Essentially, Akhtar said, injunctive relief is asking the state to “do the things it is legally obligated to do to operate the program within federal guidelines.”

Plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages.

Akhtar said, “They want to eat.” “And they also have the opportunity to try and influence the system so that it doesn’t happen again, so that their brothers and sisters and their children and communities don’t go hungry too.”

In an email Friday, a spokeswoman for the health department said, “The commissioner and DOH cannot comment on the complaint or lawsuit because we have not seen the complaint or lawsuit served.” The spokeswoman did not immediately respond to other questions regarding the backlog or its cause, or the availability of language translation services for SNAP applications and forms.

Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, chairman of the Senate Health and Social Services Committee, 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 big issue, he said: “We’re talking about, you know, sustenance of people … It’s an issue of health protection.”

“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 I’m going to focus on.” want to do,” Wilson said.


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