Residents' medical care delayed due to backlogs


March 9, 2023

From months-long waits for food stamps, to refraining from seeking medical treatment, a statewide backlog of federal aid programs continues to impact residents waiting for benefits such as Medicaid, senior benefits, food stamps and other public assistance programs.

A diabetic resident waiting for food stamps sought medical treatment for not having enough to eat while another had to blend their food while they awaited Medicaid funding for dentures, according to Southeast Alaska Independent Living (SAIL) case managers.

Susan Tandy applied for Medicaid after spending her entire life savings on medical expenses and was $10,000 in credit card debt, she said.

“I was always healthy,” Tandy said. “I never dreamed I'd have those medical bills but it was just one thing after another.”

Tandy underwent three surgeries in three years. One of which, an emergency surgery on her retina, required her to pay for 30 days in a Seattle hotel.

She applied for Medicaid in August. On Christmas Eve, she received notice that her application was denied.

“It was based on the wrong numbers of my income. They had erroneous information,” Tandy said. “So, I cried.”

Tandy filed an appeal. Another month passed and she was denied a second time.

“They still had the wrong figures. They didn't understand what they were talking about and they were obviously undertrained,” she said. “By then I knew more about how it worked then they did. I felt like giving up again.”

Tandy consulted with Alaska Legal Services, a free legal service for low-income Alaskans, to file a second appeal. Her case was reopened and in February, six months after her initial application, she was finally approved for Medicaid benefits.

Susan Briles, a SEARHC patient health benefits manager, helps residents like Tandy apply for benefits.

“The good news is if someone qualifies for Medicaid you can know pretty certainly your coverage will go back and start when you applied,” Briles said.

Ironically, because Tandy’s coverage will be retroactive to her August application, she will have to reapply for benefits in July.

SAIL assistant director Sierra Jimenez and independent living advocate Janine Allen noted several occasions where they received faulty paperwork, were directed to defective phone numbers, or placed in phone queues as long as 27 hours.

“We have a hard time navigating it and we’re used to this paperwork, we’re used to this system,” Allen said.

“Imagine somebody with a learning disability or a medical condition. It's just more than people can handle,” Jimenez added.

One resident said she “stopped trying” to contact someone about senior benefits after she was placed in a 652-person phone queue.

“The seniors, when we're on hold for three to four hours, it's not like young people who can watch TV or do other things because our hearing isn’t that good,” Tandy said. “You're afraid you're not going to hear them connect when they do, so I'll just sit there and listen to nothing but that.”

Another SAIL client received a letter suggesting they call with any questions or changes to their application. No phone number was attached.

Other residents have been told their applications were denied because they missed an appointment that they were never notified of, Jimenez said.

The hotline for the heating assistance program is also broken.

“All the paperwork they’re sending out to everybody says ‘We have received your heating assistance application. Call this number and plug in this code to find out an update on your case.’ Once they plug in everything, it says thank you and hangs up on them,” Allen said.

Allen said she helped many clients apply for heating assistance this winter, none of which have received their benefits.

“I think the people we work with when they’re navigating these systems, the message they take away is that they're not worth the support and that's really painful,” she said.

Briles said that in her eight years of experience, this backlog is “one of the worst situations” she has ever seen.

“It's disastrously slow,” Briles said. “We are not seeing applications be processed for months. People are really struggling and what bothers me most is that they’re breaking federal law.”

The state is legally required to provide Medicaid benefits 45 days after an application has been received. Food stamps must be granted after 30 days.

Salvation Army captain Kevin Woods said demand for the food pantry is the highest he has seen.

“It’s definitely more people showing up with the same story that they haven't gotten their food stamps and are running short,” Woods said. “People that normally don't come to us because they have food stamps are coming to us now. We’re trying to do the best we can.”

Woods received a call in December informing him that the food shipments provided by the government’s emergency food assistance program would be decreasing substantially. Woods went from receiving several pallets of supplies to less than 10 cases.

Haines Presbyterian pastor Dana Perreard said the church’s firewood ministry program has run out of wood.

Governor Mike Dunleavy allocated $1.7 million to stock pantries across the state and provide cards for Alaskans to buy food at local grocery stores. The money was redirected from a fund meant to purchase food supplies in natural disasters. Last month, Dunleavy also added $9 million to the state budget to hire emergency workers to work through the backlog. The program will condense two years of training into just two months.

State officials said the delays were due to staff shortage, a cyberattack that disrupted online services in 2021, and a flood of recertification applications after emergency pandemic allotments ended in September.

The Dunleavy administration cut more than 100 jobs from the Division of Public Assistant in 2021.

The CVN attempted to contact the Division of Public Assistance for this story and was placed in a 200-person phone queue.


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