Ky. House quickly advances bill putting tighter rules on food benefits, Medicaid
Republican lawmakers rushed a bill through the Kentucky House of Representatives Thursday adding work requirements for some Medicaid recipients and charging state officials with investigating food benefit use, among other proposed changes to public assistance. This was despite strong concerns and emotional pleas from Democrats and various advocacy groups that the bill would harm low-income Kentuckians who rely on assistance with food, healthcare and more.
House Bill 7, sponsored by Republican House Speaker David Osborne and Republican Speaker Pro Tempore David Meade, went through several changes during a House Health and Family Services Committee hearing, though in a way that some criticized as not being transparent to the public. After passing the committee, it was shortly after put up for the full House’s consideration. It then passed 71-26.
The bill would implement several new rules for public assistance including putting closer scrutiny on how food benefits – via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP – are used by low-income Kentuckians. It puts the Cabinet for Health and Family Services in charge of investigating cases of improper food benefit use and allows the Kentucky Attorney General to sue the cabinet if the proposed rules aren’t implemented. The bill would also permanently ban SNAP recipients from accessing all public assistance programs for repeated violations of selling an electronic benefits transfer card used for SNAP.
Rev. Kent Gilbert with the Kentucky Council of Churches was one of several who gave emotional testimony against the bill to the committee, in which no one spoke for the bill. He called for lawmakers to look “deep in [their] faith” to find ways to lift people out of poverty.
“We know for a fact that folks who are on SNAP benefits, for example, are primarily working folk, and they don't always stay on SNAP if they can get two jobs,” Gilbert said. “If we pass this bill, you will create impediments to good care. It will take deserving Kentuckians' food from their mouth, medicine from their cabinet and opportunities from the table.”
One Fayette County resident who testified before the committee criticized how Republicans on the committee made changes to the bill by replacing it with a changed substitute, with the text of the substitute only available online to the public after the committee had passed it. The committee also approved an amendment to the bill – the text also only made available to the public afterward – that removed a part of the original bill seen as problematic by advocacy groups.
The amendment removed the provision that would have eliminated what’s known as “broad-based categorical eligibility” (BBCE) which allows cabinet officials to qualify Kentuckians for SNAP benefits automatically if they qualify for other forms of public assistance, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. One research group in the state had raised concerns that eliminating BBCE would impact school districts’ ability to give out free meals to students.
Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander also told the committee about the significant increase in staffing the cabinet would need to implement the new regulations, having to invest tens of millions of dollars and hire hundreds of more employees in part to simply answer phone calls from Kentuckians regarding public assistance.
“There could be a significant backlog on phone lines,” Friedlander said. “We already have 20-minute waits. If this doubled that number, I just think we'd have the potential for a real disaster situation.”
House Bill 7 would also create work requirements for some Medicaid recipients, requiring at least 80 hours of “community engagement activities” a month to stay enrolled. Once the bill moved on the House floor, Meade defended the bill by saying the committee substitute made improvements to the legislation by adding age restrictions and exempting those physically and mentally unable from the Medicaid work program. A federal judge in 2019 struck down former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s changes to the state’s Medicaid program that also included “community engagement” requirements.
“A lot of fear-mongering going on,” Meade said. “The only way you lose your benefits is that you either violate the law, or you are an able-bodied adult with no dependents that does not participate in the [community engagement] program.”
Democratic Rep. Angie Hatton was one of several in the minority who gave emotional commentary, questioning the need for provisions that go after instances of SNAP benefits fraud. She also expressed concerns that the body was considering the legislation without a fiscal impact statement or an updated corrections impact statement for lawmakers to see.
“There is no evidence to suggest that we ought to be hunting for gnats with a sledgehammer in this way,” Hatton said. “When we are going to take measures like this, we at least owe it to those people to do it properly: to wait till we have a fiscal impact statement, to allow people to come and testify to the appropriate version of the bill. This is food and medicine, guys.”
Before the bill passed, Republican Rep. Josh Bray – who proposed the committee amendment that removed the provision eliminating BBCE – spoke in favor of the measure, saying the amendment made it a “better bill.”
“It's important that we give people the safety net that they need so that when things go wrong, they've got something to fall back on,” Bray said. “But it's also important that we give people a hand up and not a handout.”