Nurse practitioner Delia Reyes delivers a coronavirus vaccine shot to Eduardo Cumba at Ilanka Community Health Center on Feb. 6, 2021. File photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith for The Cordova Times

By Heidi Hedberg 

The mission of the Alaska Department of Health’s Division of Public Assistance (DPA) is to promote self-sufficiency by providing essential living expenses to those in need, with a focus on assisting Alaskans in achieving independence. DPA oversees assistance programs mandated by both Congress and the Alaska State Legislature. As Commissioner of the Department of Health, it is my duty to ensure the efficient and effective operation of all divisions within the department, while promoting the health and well-being of Alaskans. 

Public assistance programs are designed to be temporary, aiding families and individuals as they strive to attain or regain self-sufficiency. Recipients must reapply periodically, and it is our responsibility to ensure compliance with program requirements. 

Emerging from the challenges of the pandemic, the Department of Health confronted a host of challenges which resulted in a backlog of thousands of public assistance cases. Despite cascading hurdles, we have successfully cleared the backlog of SNAP applications. Looking ahead, we’ve reassigned the teams responsible for this remarkable achievement to concentrate their efforts on achieving similar success across the other cash public assistance programs. We expect the vast majority of the backlogged applications in these programs to be successfully processed by the end of April. Sustaining this momentum is paramount to make sure we continue to execute the long-term goal of staying current with applications. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s allocation of additional resources has been instrumental in addressing these challenges. 

With increased funding this past winter, we invested in updates to our technology infrastructure, allowing the application review process to move more quickly. Shifting our data systems, from servers to the cloud, was the first step needed to enhance cyber security and establish the environment needed to provide further upgrades. As an example, being on cloud-based servers allowed the introduction of online SNAP applications in December 2023. Nearly 5,000 Alaskan families have applied online for SNAP so far. This is a significant number, representing Alaskans that did not have to stand in line at a state office or mail their application to us, and is just one of many improvements to come. 

Additional technological enhancements, such as the Secure Document Upload Portal and SMS/email messaging service that was launched in March, have continued to improve communication and streamline document submission for Alaskans. This month, online SNAP interim reporting is expected to launch as well, giving clients an easier way to update their information and see if they are still eligible for the program. 

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This summer, DPA expects to implement an online self-service portal, where applicants can monitor their application status at their convenience and be aware when we are waiting for documents, encouraging them to be more active and allowing for greater transparency in the process. 

In addition to technological advancements, we are also focused on enhancing the SNAP interview experience, with staff undergoing training to conduct more efficient and informative interviews. 

With steady improvement in recruiting and retaining our workforce, we are now able to provide in-person service at our offices in Bethel, Juneau, Kodiak, Kenai, Homer, and Wasilla. We will continue to focus on this critical service for Alaskans, with plans to reopen the remaining offices in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Ketchikan, Nome, and Sitka in the coming months. 

These operational and technological improvements have allowed us to eliminate the SNAP application backlog and are enabling similar results with the other cash public assistance programs. 

I commend our team for their dedication to addressing significant challenges, while continuing to implement system and process improvements that will better serve Alaskans in need as we look to more modernized future at the Department of Health. 

Heidi Hedberg is the commissioner of the Department of Health. 

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