Republicans pursue changes to public assistance eligibility

House lawmakers say workforce shortages are driving proposals

By: - January 20, 2022 5:57 pm

The State Capitol in Des Moines. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa Republicans are again considering a proposal to change the state’s public assistance eligibility system, arguing the changes may improve the state’s workforce shortage.

House Speaker Pat Grassley pointed to remarks from Gov. Kim Reynolds last week, when she proposed changes to state unemployment benefits and stated that “the safety net has become a hammock.”

Grassley, R-New Hartford, said House lawmakers were reviewing Iowa’s existing policies including the “social safety net” as they addressed the workforce issue. 

“We don’t want the government to be the reason why people feel they shouldn’t be entering the workforce,” Grassley said.

This week, the House Human Services committee took up a 2021 Senate proposal that would change the way the Department of Human Services determines, verifies and tracks eligibility for public assistance programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid.

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst said Democrats were “very concerned” by the proposal, which the House split into several parts for consideration.

“Assuming that people aren’t working because they just don’t want to work, or they’re taking public assistance because they’re lazy … is so, so unfair,” she said.

Democrats have maintained that issues of child care and the pandemic are driving forces behind Iowa’s workforce shortage, rather than excess state or federal assistance. 

Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, also argued the state does not have an issue with fraud that justifies the changes.

“There’s not a big problem that this is looking to solve,” she said. “This is simply looking to demonize people who need some help.”

Republican Rep. Ann Meyer is advancing the bills through the Human Resources Committee. She told reporters Tuesday that the changes were necessary due to a high error rate for the Department of Human Services, pointing to a 2019 fine leveraged against the agency.

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

DHS officials have responded that the error rate has already improved since 2019.

How did we get here?

The House created seven bills from a 2021 Senate proposal. Senate File 389 directed the Department of Human Services to create or purchase a new system to verify and track the eligibility of Iowans on public assistance, and it changed some requirements for Iowans applying for food stamps.

Sen. Jason Schultz, a leader on the proposal, said the changes would improve efficiency at the department.

“All we’re doing is trying to make the asset verification, the identification verification, their location, try to make sure that that can be done efficiently as possible and as accurately as possible,” Schultz said in a 2021 subcommittee meeting on the bill.

Democrats opposed the proposal last year too, arguing the new system might make it more difficult for Iowans to access public assistance, or that a third-party vendor would result in people being wrongfully kicked out of their benefits.

“The more rigorous it is, the harder it is to sign up for, and I think it’s probably your intention,” said Sen. Liz Mathis in floor debate on the legislation.

House lawmakers never took up the bill. But Grassley said all proposals are under consideration going into this session.

“We need to entertain all ideas, regardless of whether we think they’re going to be signed by the governor or passed by the House or make it out of committee,” he said. “We need all of these bills on the table.”

Proposals would require DHS to redesign asset checks for eligibility

The House has considered several parts of the legislation in subcommittee, but many of the proposals have stalled, pending further discussion or clarification from experts. Lawmakers and lobbyists have also noted that some of the bills don’t work well as standalone measures.

Here’s where the proposals stand:

HSB 502 would require DHS to redesign its system to verify the income and assets of Iowans receiving public assistance. The bill requires a “real-time system” that can be accessed “periodically” to check if Iowans are eligible for certain programs. 

Opponents of the proposal saw problems with the real-time checks, arguing that the system might wrongfully flag someone on payday, when their assets are at their peak for the month.

A subcommittee tabled the bill for further discussion.

HSB 503 would require DHS to refer cases of suspected fraud to the Department of Inspections and Appeals. Under current law, DIA already investigates fraud cases. Lawmakers haven’t discussed this proposal yet.

HSB 504 would create an online, knowledge-based questionnaire for applicants for public assistance. The test would be an additional way to confirm a person’s identity, especially for an individual without a bank account or a credit history. 

Lobbyists were broadly supportive of the idea in a subcommittee last week, but proposed the questionnaire should be optional, rather than an additional step for every applicant.

The subcommittee recommended passage.

HSB 505 would tie the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to cooperation with the child support recovery unit. Lawmakers tabled the proposal for further discussion, raising concerns that “cooperation” was unclear.

HSB 507 would require DHS to look at a person’s income and physical assets – like cars or houses – before deciding if they qualify for assistance. Lawmakers have not considered the bill yet.

HSB 508 would require DHS to use an asset test to determine if someone qualifies for food stamps. That would be more restrictive than the state’s current system, which allows people to qualify for SNAP through their enrollment in other programs. Lawmakers have not considered this change in subcommittee.

HSB 515 sets out rules for DHS to follow if they find a discrepancy in someone’s information. The recipient of public assistance would have 10 days to respond to the discrepancy or risk losing their assistance. The subcommittee recommended “indefinite postponement” of the bill on Thursday, noting that the proposal doesn’t make much sense as a standalone bill.

House lawmakers also highlighted an eighth bill, HSB 506, which would change reenrollment guidelines for the Iowa Health and Wellness Plan, which is the state’s expanded Medicaid program.

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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.