The Alaska State Ombudsman has released a report chronicling and aiming to fix issues within the Division of Public Assistance.

Since January 2016, the Alaska State Ombudsman has received a steady flow of complaints-- more than 400-- about delays in processing applications for and payment of public assistance benefits, as well as complaints about the lack of a meaningful way to contact or receive a response from the Department of Health and Social Services' Division of Public Assistance about the status of applications.

The ombudsman investigated the following allegations and found them to be justified:

1) The Division of Public Assistance does not meet mandated timelines for processing applications and recertifications for program benefits as required by state and federal law.

2) The DPA does not consistently respond to telephone calls, emails or other forms of communication from the public.

3) The PDA's processing model for managing clients' long-term care cases is inefficient and ineffective.

The DPA raised no objections to those findings in its response.

DPA Director Monica Windom and Ombudsman J. Kate Burkhart held a meeting January 29 with the business process redesign consultant Change and Innovation. The group identified three paramount issues to address:

1) The backlog in processing applications for, and recertifications of eligibility for, most DPA programs

2) The lack of capacity to respond to communications from DPA recipients, care providers and the public

3) How applications/recertifications for long-term care benefits are handled.

The Ombudsman made seven recommendations to DPA to improve on meeting its statutory timelines and communication with recipients and care providers, and to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the LTC Unit:

1) Increase staff capacity to meet workload demands

2) Strengthen quality assurance processes

3) Improve document management practices

4) Create a "document hub" to centralize receipt, processing and filing of documents

5) All DPA offices have accurate caller ID

6) Address obstacles to recruitment and retention

7) Implement a case management model for the Long-term Care Unit

In conclusion, the Ombudsman reinforced that "additional staff is critical to addressing DPA's backlog and lack of communications capacity." The investigation is closed, however, the Ombudsman will monitor DPA's progress in implementing the recommendations over the next year.

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