Bill to overhaul Kentucky’s public benefit system speeds through the House
FRANKFURT — Despite pleas from advocates, opposition from 60 social and religious service groups and a lawmaker calling it “wrong,” a measure to impose several new rules on state public benefits has been defeated by the House on Thursday.
House Bill 7 was approved by the House in a vote of 71 to 25 just hours after a revised version not yet released to the public was passed by the Health and Family Services Committee of the House after a contentious hearing.
Half a dozen people and advocates have said the new rules aimed at preventing fraud will only make it harder for people who qualify for benefits to get them.
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“I’m here to ask that we don’t punish hard workers in Kentucky who are transitioning or struggling,” said Mike Wynn, of Grace Health, a community health system in eastern Kentucky. “Don’t punish them for the few bad apples in the system.”
“This bill criminalizes poverty,” said Celine Mutuyemariya of the Urban League of Louisville, who said public assistance helped her finish college and work in advocacy.
And Eric Friedlander, state cabinet secretary for health and family services, said his agency would need 500 additional workers to oversee the new rules at a time when it already faces a chronic shortage of social workers.
“I think we would have the potential for a real dire situation,” Friedlander said.
Lawmakers still don’t know the potential cost of adding more workers and systems to comply with the new rules, because a tax memo that would quantify the expenses was not yet available.
That prompted Rep. Angie Hatton, D-Whitesburg, to call for a delay in the House vote until the actual costs are determined. His effort failed.
The bill is a priority for top House Republicans, who have worked for several years to tighten public assistance rules, changes they say are needed to get more Kentuckians out of programs such as Medicaid and food stamps and access jobs.
Representative David Meade, R-Stanford, and Acting Speaker of the House, is a lead sponsor of the bill, along with House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect.
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Meade disputed some claims about the impact of HB 7, saying “a lot of scare campaigning is happening”.
Meade said those eligible for the benefits could still get them, and the elderly and children were exempt from certain restrictions or penalties for breaking the rules.
Meade said the revised version contains a key change advocates seek, removing a provision that would prevent those eligible for public assistance from automatically qualifying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also known as food vouchers.
And Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, president of House Health and Family Services, told advocates the intent was not to hurt people.
“Our goal here is to ensure the safety net remains in place for those who need it,” she said.
Yet advocates have argued that people facing issues like hunger, poverty, mental illness and homelessness are already struggling to register for public assistance, and HB 7 will make it harder. difficult.
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“Getting help is hard enough, very hard,” said Christina Libby of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky. “It’s a demoralizing and discouraging process.”
And Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, who called HB 7 “evil,” wondered how many lawmakers voting for him had ever gone hungry.
“I have,” Burch said, “this is a bill that’s going to hurt people.”
Among the proposed changes to HB 7:
- It would create a new legislative “public assistance advisory and oversight committee” as a watchdog of benefit programs.
- It adds a host of new rules for benefits such as SNAP, Medicaid and cash assistance for the poor, and tasks the Cabinet of Health and Family Services with implementing them.
- It eliminates the state’s ability to exempt able-bodied adults without children from a work requirement for SNAP child support benefits. In the past, the state had been able to grant exemptions on grounds of hardship.
- It tightens food stamp eligibility standards that would make even modest assets such as a used car or a small retirement account count against the claimant and force the state to scrutinize those assets more closely.
- It increases reporting requirements for any change in status, such as a move to a new address or a temporary increase in income that could put people at risk of penalties, including loss of benefits, even for unintentional mistakes.
- This would end the state’s ability to grant “presumed eligibility” for the Medicaid health plan for low-income individuals, a process by which someone can obtain temporary benefits for three months via a simple application until until they complete a detailed application or leave the program. The use of this process has been expanded during the pandemic to provide faster healthcare to those in need.
- This would require the firm to review and remove from Medicaid those who are no longer eligible.
- In some cases, “able-bodied” Medicaid recipients would be required to participate in 80 hours per month of “community involvement” activities, such as jobs or volunteer work, similar to work rules that former Gov. Matt Bevin unsuccessfully tried to implement in Medicaid. .
- It imposes tougher penalties for fraud, including selling an electronic benefits card to someone else.
- And the bill would allow the attorney general to sue the firm if it fails to follow certain rules.
HB 7 now goes to the Senate for review.