Bill to expand eligibility checks for public assistance returns — in eight parts

By: - January 18, 2022 7:08 pm

DHS Director Kelly Garcia spoke at a House subcommittee meeting on public assistance eligibility on Jan. 18, 2022. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A proposal to change the ways the state monitors the eligibility of Iowans on public assistance is back after a similar idea failed to pass last year. This time, lawmakers have split the complex legislation into eight parts.

The initial proposal, Senate File 389, would require the Department of Human Services (DHS) to use a digital system to monitor the eligibility of Iowans on public assistance. Senate Republicans hoped the system would reduce errors and fraud in the process.

The House did not take up the proposal in 2021.

Regardless, Rep. Ann Meyer, chair of the House Human Resources Committee, said change was necessary to fix Iowa’s public assistance eligibility system. She pointed to a $1.8 million fine charged against the DHS in 2019 for the SNAP error rate, which was then 10%.

“We need to make sure that if people are eligible for the safety net, that they’re getting it,” Meyer said Tuesday. “And that people who are not eligible, we’re not spending tax dollars on them.”

Rather than resurrect last year’s Senate proposal, the House chose a new method. The Human Resources committee split the 2021 bill into “eight manageable pieces.” Meyer said the committee broke the bill down to have conversations on the individual components of the proposal.

“We run every bill through subcommittee to see what the problems are and to see how it progresses from there,” se said.

Meyer said she was not sure if the House was more likely to pass the eight, smaller proposals in 2022 than the larger bill in 2021.

By Tuesday evening, the House had conducted subcommittees on three parts of the proposal:

  • HSB 504, a bill to change the identity verification process for public assistance;
  • HSB 502, a bill to require DHS to redesign its system to track the income and assets of Iowans receiving public assistance;
  • HSB 505, a bill tying the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to cooperation with the child support recovery unit.

Kelly Garcia, director of DHS, told lawmakers at several of the meetings that DHS has significantly improved its error rate since the 2019 fee.

“We have made a very diligent effort since 2019, when I arrived, to bring our error rate back into compliance, and we’re just shy of that national average,” Garcia said.

According to DHS, the department’s SNAP error rate in 2021 was 6.58%. Garcia said she is committed to the overall goal of improving DHS’s systems, but she cautioned lawmakers to consider the “very significant technology enhancement” already happening at DHS.

“We need to be mindful that, certainly, if the Legislature chooses to direct us to do something different, to think about the timeline for implementation and how that coincides with the work in the department that is already well underway,” she said.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.