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Senate committee advances bill tightening rules for food benefits, Medicaid

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HB7 sponsors House Speaker David Osborne and House Speaker Pro Tem David Meade, both Republicans.

Kentucky Republicans passed a bill out of a committee Monday that would put tighter rules on public assistance despite strong concerns from various advocacy groups and organizations that it would strip many low-income Kentuckians of needed assistance with food and healthcare.

House Bill 7, sponsored by Republican House Speaker David Osborne and Republican Speaker Pro Tempore David Meade, would implement several changes to Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or food stamps.

The bill went through revisions before being heard by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, changes that were not published online for the public to see until after the committee passed it by a 9-2 vote. The bill went through a similar process when the House Health and Family Services Committee passed it earlier this month.

Among the new rules created in the legislation:

  • It would charge Cabinet for Health and Family Services employees to investigate cases in which benefits from SNAP aren’t used “for the welfare of the family.”
  •  It would require some Medicaid recipients – specifically able-bodied adults without dependents – to participate in a “community engagement” program to maintain healthcare. It would exempt minors, the elderly, and those not “physically and mentally able to work.” 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.
  • It would punish those who sell an Electronic Benefits Transfer payment card used for food benefits with up to a five-year ban from all public assistance programs for repeated violations. 
  • It would require SNAP recipients – exempting the elderly and disabled – to report changes in income and assets, changes in address and more, or be at risk of losing benefits. 

The bill would also give the attorney general, currently Republican Daniel Cameron, to sue the Cabinet for Health and Family Services if these new rules aren’t implemented.

Speaking before the senate committee, bill sponsor David Meade said the legislation is about cutting down on suspected public assistance fraud.

“The goal is to make sure that the folks who…truly need these benefits are receiving them,” Meade said. “That we are cutting down on fraud and cutting down on those who are ineligible.”

The bill throughout its journey in the General Assembly has faced strong opposition from various advocacy groups concerned the legislation will harm many low-income families and children relying on public assistance. Cassidy Wheeler, advocacy coordinator for the nonprofit food bank network Feeding Kentucky, told the committee the bill would particularly burden underfunded public schools that try to fill the gaps with child hunger.

Mentioning her experience as a former teacher at Warren County Public Schools, Wheeler said children and families who are immigrants or refugees could be particularly hurt by the loss of benefits.

“These are the families who will fall through the cracks if this bill passes. Those who already face significant challenges either because of language barriers, work demands, accessibility or any number of other reasons,” Wheeler said. “If HB7 passes, families will lose food assistance, kids will go hungry.”

Dozens of organizations and advocacy groups representing social workers, mental health advocates, housing advocates and food banks sent a joint letter to lawmakers last week opposing the legislation.

Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander repeated previous concerns he had about the legislation to the senate committee, saying that the extra paperwork created from regulations in the bill could “overwhelm” cabinet employees in charge of handling phone calls related to public assistance. Friedlander said some changes to provisions in the bill regarding SNAP were appreciated, though.

Meade said the latest changes made to HB7 take out a lot of the extra “checks” that cabinet staff would have to do to root out suspected public assistance fraud, pointing to bill language that would have cabinet staff investigate suspected fraud “in the normal course of operations.”

It’s currently unclear how much the bill and new regulations will cost the state, though previous estimates by state officials and researchers have stated it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars in new cabinet staff and technology. The revised version of the bill approved by the senate committee doesn’t have a fiscal impact statement from legislature staff that’s published online, a lingering question and criticism raised by advocates and Democrats.

Dustin Pugel, senior policy analyst with the left-leaning research group Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said the revised version of the bill does provide some flexibilities on implementing certain rules but that it still requires “too much paperwork, and too many verification checks for folks.”

“We already know that what we do works well to make sure that the right people are getting benefits,” Pugel said. “There's a lot of eligible folks who are going to lose Medicaid and SNAP.”

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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