BACK AT WORK – Mary Miller, center, gets a round of applause Wednesday after speaking at a reception at Sitka National Historical Park where she is again the superintendent. Miller's return to the head position at the park has come after an eight-year legal odyssey. She was superintendent of the park from 2008 to 2010 when she was reassigned to a new position in Anchorage that she rejected and was fired. After filing suit she was reinstated in 2013 and served until 2015 when an appeal filed by the U.S. Park Service reversed the earlier decision and she was again terminated. She filed a new suit and a trial was set for 2019, but Congressman Don Young and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke stepped in on her behalf and Miller was re-instated. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

State Welfare Office Returning to Sitka

By ABIGAIL BLISS
Sentinel Staff Writer
    Sitka’s welfare office is on the road to reopening, says Monica Windom, director of the Division of Public Assistance (DPA) in Alaska’s Department of Health and Social services.
    The department’s office at Totem Square closed in June due to budget cuts, she said.
    When two of its staffers left – one for retirement, and the other for other reasons – DPA decided against filling the vacant positions and instead closed up shop in Sitka. An indication of how big a hole that created in the social safety net was provided by Dolly Alberston, an office assistant at the Sitka welfare office until it closed, who said staff would assist 20 to 40 people a day.

Andrea Thomas works at her SEARHC office. (Sentinel Photo)


    Within the past few weeks, however, DPA has advertised for staff to reopen the Sitka office.
    Fran Schwuchow of the Sitka Job Center said an Eligibility Technician position for Sitka was advertised on Workplace Alaska March 16 to April 2. An office assistant position was posted slightly earlier, she said, and closed on March 28.
    “We have recently decided to go ahead and restaff that office and leave that open,” Windom confirmed. She predicted that the doors will open in two or three months.
    “It depends on how the hiring goes...They have to review all the applications, and then do the interviews, and then get hiring approvals,” she said, adding that, once selected, staff would have to undergo extensive training.
    Jeanne Young, an administrative assistant in the Division of Public Assistance in Juneau, said the two recent advertisements were the first job postings for the Sitka office since its closure last summer.
    “We just got approval to hire recently,” she said. “This is the first time they’ve been posted since those positions were vacant.”
    The Department’s outpost in Kotzebue had also been closed, Windom said, and there are no plans to reopen it.
    “It’s a tough decision to close an office,” she said. “We don’t want to close the small offices. We know how important they are to the economic security in smaller communities.”
    For Sitka organizations that have been picking up the slack in welfare referrals since the June office closure, the reopening of a local welfare cannot come soon enough.
    Sitka Community Hospital assumed the role of “fee agent,” assigning three staff members to respond to inquiries once handled by the local welfare office.
    Andrea Thomas, SEARHC’s Outreach and Enrollment Manager, is another point person who stepped in to help take up the slack in services.
    “They (DPA) just closed their door, basically telling people that they should call Juneau,” she said. “It’s been really difficult for people. The biggest disservice is for people who don’t know where to get assistance ... They’re on their own, and they just don’t know where to go. These are very difficult systems to navigate.”
    She said the fee agents at SCH are able to take applications for Medicaid or other health coverage and fax them to the state, but at SEARHC she often sits down with Sitkans to walk them through the application processes.
    “We’re the only people that actually sit down and meet with people,” she said. “We have a lot of people that used to go to the Division of Public Assistance, and they’re coming to us. And we can only do so much.”
    Thomas was quick to note that the lack of a local welfare office has put stress on organizations such as Youth Advocates of Sitka, Sitka Counseling, and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.
    “All of these people have been negatively impacted by the closing of the office,” she said.
    STA’s social services director Melonie Boord, said the Tribe had “absolutely” seen heavier traffic since the DPA office closed last June.
    “We have seen an increase in those accessing our food pantry, as well as other financial assistance programs,” she told the Sentinel.
    Sitka’s Legislative Information Office manager Ken Fate said the closure had an impact on his work, too.
    “We definitely saw an increase in traffic of folks who not only didn’t know where to go, but had stopped receiving any communication from the Division of Public Assistance,” he said. “The biggest issue was that the Division of Public Assistance simply stated that they weren’t even going to try to respond.”
    Thomas said that the underlying issue was a shortage of staff and funds at the state-run Division of Public Assistance. She estimated that the staff was “incredibly backlogged” by some 20,0000 applications for both Medicaid and food stamps.
    “(It’s) extremely understaffed,” Thomas said. “That’s the bottom line ... There’s nobody to call, no one to answer the phone.”
    She said the lack of communication has made it difficult to discern what exactly the Department is doing in order to reopen an office in Sitka.
    She expressed hope, however, that the department would be able to get its Sitka location back up and running. It is, in fact, essential that they do it, she said.
    “I’m really hopeful that they can hire staff soon so that we can get local assistance because we really are in dire need of it,” she said. “We need to have a local office.”





   

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