Kentucky Equal Justice Center is a non-federally funded partner with civil legal aid programs across the state that help people when things go wrong with public benefits: the perplexing notices, denials of aid, unexpected cutoffs.
We and our legal aid partners see in heartbreaking detail what it looks like to navigate the bureaucracy—or to go without help.
Together with the National Health Law Program and Southern Poverty Law Center, KEJC challenged Governor Bevin’s plan for Medicaid work requirements—requirements that reappear in this bill. We won in federal district court. Governor Beshear withdrew the plan.
If we’re looking for a touchstone or benchmark, I hope we keep in mind the troubling times that are now ending. The pandemic 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.
I don’t know whether lawmakers or their families or their neighbors needed help. But I think a useful frame for thinking about this bill is: What if they did? How would we want these programs to operate for them and treat them?
Sadly, HB 7 doesn’t look like it grew from talking with hard hit Kentuckians about 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: the Foundation for Governmental Accountability, whose lobbying arm in Kentucky is called Opportunity Solutions.
House discussion of HB 7 revealed talking points used to justify the bill. As reported by Kentucky Health News, the prime sponsor, Rep. Meade, said.
“The only way that you would lose benefits in this bill is that you were either doing something that is illegal, or you are an able-bodied adult with no dependents that is not willing to participate in the work programs.”
I’m here to tell you that is incorrect. The gorilla in the room on HB 7 is the blizzard of reporting requirements it would unleash. That's what will cause people to lose coverage. It will happen under SNAP work reporting, SNAP change reporting, and under Medicaid work reporting if it comes to pass.
That is not alarmist speculation. We need only look at the experience in a neighboring state. Arkansas implemented a work reporting requirement for Medicaid very much like Governor Bevin’s. It ran for a few months before the federal courts struck it down—in a case combined with Kentucky’s. About 18,000 people lost coverage in that handful of months, mostly for not reporting--not for not working.
A Harvard study reported that:
In addition, more than 95% of the low-income individuals in Arkansas subject to the policy were already meeting the work requirements (either working 80 hours a month or participating in a community engagement activity such as job training) or should have been able to gain an exemption (based on disability, childcare, or other factors). But one third of this group hadn’t even heard of the requirements (particularly among those with less than a high school degree), and only half were reporting the required information online to the state in order to keep their coverage, primarily due to confusion about the process or lack of internet access.
I vividly recall a PBS news story that showed an older worker in Arkansas looking into his phone trying to figure out how to report his work. He had failed once already. That's what this bill will look like here. In SNAP, it's the vast increase in required reporting that will trip people up.
House floor discussion revealed narratives used to justify this bill: of non-working “able bodied adults” and fraudsters gaming the system. Those statements should give us pause. In a compelling new article, attorney Parker Gilkesson of the Center on Law and Social Policy 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.
It is well past time to call out the fraud and dependency stereotypes each time they are raised. They not only hide the real life story of the vast majority of Kentuckians who use the safety net—they justify policies that deprive Kentuckians of health care and food when they need it.
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March 22, 2022
Richard J. Seckel. Director
Kentucky Equal Justice Center
201 W. Short Street, Suite 310
Lexington, KY 40507