The pandemic hit hard and fast. It hit some people and communities harder than others. It made heroes of front line workers, especially in food and medicine.
As jobs plummeted, it showed we need a safety net that works efficiently, treats people with respect and provides real help. That means straightforward rules, user-friendly programs, adequate staffing and modern technology. It means answering the phones.
Kentucky’s safety net performance was a mixed bag. Our outdated unemployment insurance system hit the wall and left us with troubling images of long lines at state office buildings just to get help cutting through the red tape.
But simplified rules for Medicaid and SNAP meant people got or kept health coverage and kept food on the table. As the pandemic eases, use of those programs is falling dramatically. The safety net worked just as it should. If anything, our next big step should be to modernize the technology platform for unemployment insurance.
Sadly, a bill now moving in Frankfort ignores the lessons of the pandemic and the recovery. It calls to mind Governor Bevin’s fascination with creating barriers to Medicaid—famously embodied in a plan struck down by federal courts—but extends them to more programs. It takes away tools that we used to help thousands during the pandemic.
House Bill 7 would add red tape, barriers, and penalties to safety net programs that connect people with health care and keep food on the table. Key provisions could see thousands of people lose Medicaid or food assistance, or never make it past new roadblocks to aid in the first place. Among them:
Ban on temporary Medicaid: HB 7 would bar Kentucky’s Medicaid agency from making available simplified, temporary coverage, an approach called presumptive eligibility or “PE.” PE helped thousands when the pandemic hit and shrank dramatically as it eased. Next time, our hands would be tied.
Bureaucratic burden: HB 7 would end simplified reporting of changes for SNAP—an approach embraced by nearly every state—in favor of reporting almost every change as it happens. It would tie up families and state workers in a flood of paperwork for over half a million cases. Especially hard hit: part-time workers with fluctuating schedules and income.
Attack on savings: HB 7 would cut food assistance and further impoverish families by bringing back “asset tests” that require them not just to have low income but to be all but destitute to keep food on the table. Families couldn’t get SNAP until their assets fell below. $2,500 (or $3,750 for a senior or person with a disability)—and that includes bank accounts, retirement and even student loans in repayment. If we want households to build for the future, we should not strip away their savings. (This provision was deleted in the House. See our updated handout )on provisions.
Loss of SNAP after three months: Federal law limits SNAP for adults without children or disabilities to just 3 months in three years—unless they report work activity. But federal law also allows states to set aside the time limit for areas with higher unemployment. HB 7 says Kentucky could never set it aside, a heartbreaking result for many rural counties.
Make-work for state workers: Kentucky state agency workers saddled by the bill with these changes already are underpaid and overworked. Requiring them to handle hundreds of thousands of change reports and check for assets that often aren’t there will make their jobs harder. It will grow the bureaucracy rather than make it more efficient.
HB 7 also includes a spending trigger that would allow Kentucky to pursue a Medicaid plan like Governor Bevin’s all over again, inviting costly litigation.
From what we see, HB 7 didn’t grow from asking hard hit Kentuckians what would help them when they need it. Many of its provisions reportedly came from the wish list of an out-of-state think tank with an ideological agenda that pre-dated COVID-19.
Meanwhile, there’s a good chance we’ll hear about fraud and “dependency” among arguments for the bill. Those arguments should give us pause. In a compelling new article, Center on Law and Social Policy attorney Parker Kilkesson notes that, “Although the number of convicted instances of fraud is low, everyone who receives public benefits is clouded by fear.” Gilkesson’s theme: racialized fraud provisions criminalize hunger.
Policies that perpetuate stereotypes of fraud and dependency not only miss the point—they deprive Kentuckians of health care and food when they need it.
For detailed analysis of HB 7, see Ky Policy’s “HB 7 Puts New, Costly Barriers in Front of Kentuckians Seeking Food and Medical Help.” The article features a striking chart showing how quickly Medicaid PE has declined since last summer (see below).
Let your views be known!
Call the toll-free legislative message line at 1-800-372-7181. Leave a message for your state Senator and Representative. “Vote No on HB 7. Kentuckians deserve a safety net that works when they need it and treats them with respect.”
Use our Action Network Campaign to send an email to your Senator and Representative. Click here.