Iowa House panels advance bills creating new eligibility hurdles for public assistance programs

By: - March 28, 2023 3:32 pm

A store advertises it accepts government food cards. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Advocates for low-income Iowans told lawmakers Tuesday that proposed changes in eligibility rules for Iowa’s public assistance programs will hurt families struggling to make ends meet.

Iowa House members held a series of meetings Tuesday on bills making changes to eligibility for Iowa’s public assistance programs.

Senate File 494 would add new asset tests and income limits for people to receive public benefits through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid. It also would create a new identity, income and asset verification system for the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services. The Iowa Senate passed the bill earlier this month. Republican lawmakers said these measures will help prevent fraud, but Democrats argued the changes will keep legitimately needy Iowans from accessing state aid.

Hunger resource and medical advocates echoed Democrats’ concerns at the Tuesday subcommittee meetings on the Senate bill and House File 613, the House’s version of the legislation. Some advocates asked for specific changes to the legislation to help families realistically navigate a new verification system. Chaney Yeast with Blank Children’s Hospital asked lawmakers to change the bill’s requirement that recipients respond within 10 days to a written notice from HHS about problems identified in reviewing their application.

According to the Legislative Services Agency report, 8,000 Medicaid recipients, 2,800 SNAP recipients, as well as 600 enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program and 100 in the Family Investment Program will have benefits canceled due to discrepancies in fiscal year 2026.

Yeast said it’s important to remember that discrepancies are not necessarily fraud. With delays in mail due to postal worker shortages and the complexities of correctly submitting asset and income documentation, many eligible Iowans will not be able to meet the 10-day deadline set out by the bill, she said.

“Every time there’s a letter that comes out from Medicaid, every provider across the state gets calls from their patients saying, ‘Explain this to me, I’m not sure what it means,'” Yeast said. “And then we help them work through it. To do that all within the 10 days is just not realistic.”

Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola, said he will look at the 10-day deadline. The Senate, during floor debate, rejected a Democratic proposal to extend the 10-day response window.

“I hear the appeal date as an issue for some,” Fry said. “I would assume that if I can get that appeal date moved, you will all change your opposition to the bill.”

Fry said critics of the bill were misrepresenting the intent and impact of putting new tests and limits on public benefit eligibility. He said the provisions in the bill will make sure Iowa’s SNAP and Medicaid programs are sustainable, and will ensure people who need public assistance are the ones receiving benefits.

Andy Conlin with the Opportunity Solutions Project said the bill will result in millions in savings for both state and federal taxpayer dollars. The LSA report said creating a new verification program would have one-time costs of $20.3 million and the program would save the state $7.8 million annually beginning in fiscal year 2027.

“We’re talking about approximately $8 million of state savings, but we’re also talking about $42 million in federal government tax savings,” Conlin said. “Those are also taxpayer dollars that Iowans are paying for. That’s significant savings and those are funds that can be reinvested either into this program or wherever else. ”

Rep. Heather Matson, D-Ankeny, disagreed with Conlin’s assessment of the saved money. The federal tax dollars would not be redistributed to other Iowa programs, she said, even though Iowans will still be on the hook to pay federal taxes that fund those programs.

“To be clear, this is not a money that we would then be able to use for something else,” Matson said. “We would just not get that money anymore. So instead of making sure that this $42 million from the federal government could go towards SNAP and Medicaid programs, we just wouldn’t get it. So in essence, we as Iowans would be saying we are no longer going to get the benefits of what we are paying our tax dollars for.”

Both pieces of legislation advanced out of House subcommittees on 3-2 votes. Fry said he wants to continue working on the best path forward for ensuring the Legislature is protecting the tax dollar, and that benefits are going to “the right individual at the right moment in time.”

“These two bills have landed on my desk as the appropriation side of things, the Health and Human Services budget policy chair, I will be working with both of these bills,” Fry said. “We’ll make some determination about how we move forward in the future in later dates.”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.