Five Senate bills target Iowans on public assistance

Matt Chapman has attended Iowa House and Senate subcommittee meetings nearly every day. These bills were among the most significant he has tracked lately. -promoted by Laura Belin

Over the past week, Iowa Senate subcommittees considered five bills drafted to address fraud in Iowa public assistance programs. Each bill would direct revenue generated by Iowa taxpayers to private vendors, who are charged with finding fraudulent claims. If investigation supports the claims of fraud, those funds could be recovered, and criminal charges filed.

It sounds like a simple solution, but these complex programs combat poverty in the areas of healthcare, disability and food insecurity. Other states have implemented all these proposals in one form or another. A bill that requires a percentage of those on Medicaid to work in Kentucky was stayed by the D.C. Circuit Court, and in Arkansas and Maine similar legislation caused eligible beneficiaries losing coverage, due to confusing and tangled re-certification rules.

A COMMON SOURCE

Four of the five bills came to Iowa from the Opportunity Solutions Project. That right-wing policy advocacy organization skews data with ridiculous footnotes and backs its claims using polls conducted by a right-wing media public relations firm, Cor Strategies.

Opportunity Solutions Project is under the umbrella of the Foundation for Government Accountability, which is linked to the conservative advocacy groups KOCH and Americans For Prosperity. They helped craft some of the most damaging legislation from the past two years, such as the breaking of public unions. They have also pushed to divert public education funds to private school options.

It is important to note that while these organizations write model legislation for all Republican-controlled state governments, the lawmakers who choose to carry their water are responsible for their actions. When they decide to work for powerful outside groups, it gives those organizations a louder voice than any single person in our state. You can see this play out in tax policy that benefits wealthy groups, forcing cuts to programs impacting 95 percent of Iowans.

Voting for lawmakers who embrace these groups is tantamount to voting against your family’s best interest.

BILL ONE: A NON-STARTER

Senate Study Bill 1132 would have turned the cards issued to Iowans on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) into photo ID, in order to discourage fraud. Republican State Senator Jason Schultz, who chairs the Labor and Business Relations Committee, admitted at the onset, “The federal government rules put a fence around these cards.”

It is not unusual for subcommittee meetings to be cancelled. Since it was known ahead of time that this bill would violate federal law, why hold the meeting?

It was theater for Schultz to demonstrate he was being reasonable by killing his own bill.

BILL TWO: MORE RED TAPE FOR IOWANS ON MEDICAID

Senate Study Bill 1131 would supposedly strengthen oversight of public assistance programs.

Its main purpose is to require officials to verify eligibility at least four times a year, compared to the current practice of doing so once or twice a year. This will double or triple the cost of intake and review. The real agenda here may be to save money by kicking Iowans off assistance.

Navigating the maze for applying and renewing eligibility for the Medicaid program is already difficult. It can take weeks and sometimes months to be re-enrolled after being denied benefits because of errors in that process. Forcing Iowans to reapply every quarter would greatly increase the chance that eligible people would miss a date or a step in the process.

That may look good on a graph to show people removed from the rolls, but the impact would undermine the goal of assistance programs: giving the least among us access to medical care, housing, and nutrition.

This passage in the bill suggests it would create the incentive for kicking folks out of the program:

The department [of Human Services] may contract with a third-party vendor to provide the information specified in subsection 1. Any such contract shall include a provision that ensures that annualized savings to the state exceed the contract’s total annual cost to the state.

In other words, the more folks removed, the more profit.

At the February 18 subcommittee, Democratic State Senator Bill Dotzler hammered this point home repeatedly to the chair Schultz and the vendor for LexisNexis, the firm vying for the contract to provide the oversight. The organization’s parent company RELX was registered as undecided, but the preparedness and presence of their lobbyist was a declaration in itself. A competitor, EQUIFAX, was registered against the bill.

Dotzler also expressed concern that many people in Iowa think no one should be on public assistance. These five bills would reinforce those stereotypes, and this bill in particular points to the real goal of all five: funneling Iowa tax dollars to a multinational corporation, which would generate income by removing Iowans from the rolls, regardless of their eligibility.

The next key lobbyist was Karla Fultz McHenry, representing Opportunity Solutions Project. She described her organization as “the accountability arm of the Foundation for Government Accountability,” and admitted, “This is our bill.” They wrote three related bills as well. McHenry touted the success of this vendor’s oversight in other states. The reality is that many eligible citizens lost the benefits they deserved.

A short while later, Dave Stone spoke on behalf of the United Way of Iowa, which has registered against the bill. With “apologies to my friends at DHS,” he noted that the department’s data systems are from the 1980s.

I highly doubt they will be able to be portable or transfer data to anything in 2019. I believe the latest estimate on getting our data systems at DHS up to 2019 and 21st century technology would be somewhere in the realm of 12 to 15 million dollars, so we cannot say right now with any certainty that the systems that the department are operated under would even pair with a third party vendor that’s out there.

Tyler Raygor, representing Americans For Prosperity, spoke in favor of the bill. Lobbyists for Iowans for Tax Relief are also registered in support.

Tom Chapman of the Iowa Catholic Conference echoed Dotzler’s opening comments about the incentive to kick folks off the rolls.

Dotzler then spoke about the Americans for Prosperity lobbyist and compared their concern with this legislation to their apparent indifference when it came to looking into fraud in Iowa Economic Development Authority programs.

He also talked about asking disabled individuals, some profoundly disabled, to now report quarterly into a system that was already difficult for them to navigate.

Republican State Senator Zach Whiting said he would be happy to sign the bill and spoke of “integrity in the system,” a familiar phrase we heard during the voter ID debate two years ago.

Schultz moved the bill forward, and implied that he was fair-minded by mentioning he had previously killed his own bill to require photo ID for people on food assistance.

BILL THREE: TYING FOOD ASSISTANCE TO CHILD SUPPORT

Senate Study Bill 1109 came before the full Labor and Business Relations Committee on February 19. Its subheading reads, “An Act relating to eligibility for the supplemental nutrition assistance program and cooperation regarding a child support order.”

The concept is to remove “deadbeat” parents who default on their child support from SNAP rolls. The proposal raises a valid point, but problems arise when children and their caregivers are wrongly denied benefits.

Schultz called on McHenry, lobbyist for the bill’s author (Opportunity Solutions Project) to kick off the discussion. She said we shouldn’t be giving non-custodial parents SNAP benefits when they’re not paying their child support.

Schultz then asked her if federal code allowed states to do this. She said yes, it is an option, and introduced Nick Stehle, senior fellow from the Foundation for Government Accountability, as a source. Schultz replied “Cool! Sir, go ahead.”

Stehle echoed that it was an option. He then spoke of thousands of children in Iowa who are denied child support, claiming the lack of support would prevent them from being lifted out of poverty.

Nowhere in the discussion of any of these proposals did any Senate Republican or representative from conservative advocacy groups address stagnant wages, which are the main cause of poverty–with the exception of Schutz, who mentioned that he didn’t believe in a living wage.

After public comments, Democratic State Senator Tony Bisignano asked, “Can somebody explain to me the meaning of ‘cooperate’ in this bill?”

McHenry explained that “cooperation” meant they would establish a payment program with the child support recovery unit.

Bisignano asked who’s getting SNAP benefits.

McHenry: “He could be part of another household that is receiving food stamps. He could be the live-in boyfriend who has kids with another woman three miles away. He’s living with another woman and he’s part of the family so he’s getting food stamps.”

Bisignano wondered, how do you get to the boyfriend who’s the deadbeat?

McHenry: “The boyfriend that’s the deadbeat is part of that household where he’s living that is getting food stamps.”

Bisignano: “How do you get this person pinned down without hurting the second family where he’s living?”

McHenry: “Well, uh. I understand what you’re asking me, but what I need to say to you is that he needs to be responsible for his children.”

Bisignano: “How do we get to him without hurting innocent victims?”

McHenry: “We’re not taking their food stamps away. He will have his own separate food stamp allocation. You’re not taking away mom and her kids’ food stamps.”

Schultz and Bisignano talked about the cost of pinpointing these folks and removing them from the rolls, and if it was financially feasible.

There was some dog whistling about “bad actors,” yet those supporting the measures refuse to acknowledge how their proposals could adversely affect innocent Iowans, especially children.

It came across as theater, promoting the stereotype of people on assistance as lazy, with a racist subtext.

The only groups registered in support of SSB 1109 are Americans for Prosperity and the Opportunity Solutions Project (the bill’s author). The Des Moines Area Religious Council, Iowa State Education Association, Families United Action Network, Child and Family Policy Center, and the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence lobbied against it.

Labor committee Republicans approved the bill on a party-line vote.

BILL FOUR: TYING FOOD ASSISTANCE TO AN OUTDATED “WORKFARE” MODEL

Opportunities Solutions Project lobbyist McHenry spoke first about Senate Study Bill 1108, which relates to SNAP benefits. She explained the bill’s purpose is to refer single parents of children aged six and above to a “workfare” program. She confirmed to Schultz that it was just a referral. Asked by Bisignano to elaborate, she said workfare was an umbrella providing many opportunities to engage.

Stone spoke next on behalf of United Way Iowa, which registered against this bill on the grounds that workfare is an outdated model. “We want to offer you an alternative.” He said several people in the room met over the summer to discuss a different program, SNAP Employment and Training (E&T), which “we are woefully under-utilizing in our state.”

He referenced the HiSET (GED) program and thanked the state for their contributions, adding that non-profits had almost matched state dollars. With E&T, non-profits would match the state’s contributions, and the federal government would match that amount 50/50. That would generate nearly $6 million toward moving SNAP beneficiaries off the program.

Stone explained the United Way was dedicated to getting folks into the workforce, not kicking them off public assistance. He said Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack used to call his boss and say, “You are leaving millions of dollars on the table by not utilizing this program.”

Schultz said he didn’t care about taking federal dollars as they just make theirs out of thin air. “If it helps Iowa, I’ll take it.”

McHenry said she took some umbrage at that, since E&T was under the umbrella of workforce.

Schultz asked if E&T would work in this bill. She admitted it would.

Stone said, “We don’t even acknowledge workfare any more. We live in the real era.”

Schultz said that sounded like a semantics. McHenry agreed.

Bisignano said workfare is just a marketing term. Schultz: “Yes.”

McHenry countered, “Workfare is a federal term. And this is the model bill from the Foundation for Government Accountability, I’m their advocate here in Iowa under Opportunity Solutions Project. That’s the name, we can call it whatever you like.”

Schultz said he thought they were getting somewhere and asked Stone if he was still opposed to the bill.

Stone confirmed he was opposed to the outdated workfare model.

A discussion between Stone, DHS and Schultz around the bill’s language ensued. They eventually agreed the workforce term would mean that all programs were included.

Time for more comments from lobbyists and members of the public. Democratic State Senator Joe Bolkcom, who sat in on the last meeting, thanked the chair for permission to speak and said,

This is a bill, a solution in search of a problem. We have a lobbyist, who has a client, who wants a contract with the state of Iowa to harass people who are qualified for food stamps.

From the conversation back and forth, the chair, who brought this bill, hardly understands the details of the bill, doesn’t understand what the bill requires, and the back and forth between the company that wants get a contract, and the chair, and us, I think underscores we don’t know what we’re talking about.

When we talk about moms and kids, we also need to talk about child care support as moms get into the work force. These are complicated issues. There are unintended consequences from these ideas that are put forth. This one is obvious. We have someone who wants to be a vendor to the state and take money from the taxpayers for a problem that doesn’t exist.

Schultz turned to Stone: “I take exception at him talking about United Way that way. That seems to be a shame, just so you know. You guys sort that out, just between United Way and you.”

Bolkcom: “We’re cool.”

Stone: “I’m sorry, but we do not want a contract.”

Things went off the rails as commenters around the room spoke. Advocates against the bill outlined every issue a working single mother had to deal with. A few activists and folks from the public shared their feelings with this discussion and the way it debased them. There were many concerns about the bill’s language and unintended consequences. The legislation was not clearly defining what it wanted to address. Again, the question of low wages and how they play into the need for assistance went unheeded.

Only Americans for Prosperity and Opportunity Solutions Project (the bill’s author) registered in favor of SSB 1108. A large coalition of religious organizations and groups representing vulnerable people lobbied against the proposal.

Republicans voted to advance the bill to the full Labor committee.

BILL FIVE: WORK REQUIREMENTS FOR MEDICAID RECIPIENTS

Senate Study Bill 1134 is another Opportunity Solutions Project special, modeled on a law enacted in Kentucky, which was later struck down in federal court.

Current law protects Medicaid recipients from being kicked off the rolls for being unemployed. The federal government’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services had given the state of Kentucky a waiver to bypass that law. This bill has the same goal.

The D.C. Circuit Court stopped the Kentucky waiver, finding that CMS Director Seema Verma (who authored Iowa’s privatized Medicaid) violated the spirit of the Affordable Care Act by allowing health care to be taken away from impoverished Kentuckians.

The governor of Kentucky wrote an executive order that would reverse the Medicaid expansion if the courts blocked the CMS waiver to implement workfare in his state. That vindictive response would hurt hundreds of thousands of his constituents.

Arkansas has enacted a similar law. Again, CMS approved the waiver. Many working Arkansans are falling through the cracks, having lost their Medicaid coverage by design, due to the red tape.

Bisignano started the conversation by saying these bills are harassing folks on assistance. He mentioned that representatives from Americans for Prosperity were present and wondered why we weren’t asking them to pay it forward. Employees of the country’s biggest employer, Wal-Mart, are the folks that are on public assistance.

Schultz said he agreed, and claimed the root cause was importing “illegal” (undocumented) workers. That kind of deflection has nothing to do with low wages, but it reinforces a stereotype that appeals to bigoted constituents.

McHenry introduced SSB 1134 as the handiwork of Opportunity Solutions Project and the Foundation for Government Accountability. She also re-introduced Stehle, the foundation’s senior fellow, as an expert.

The bill would require people on Medicaid to work by requesting a waiver from CMS, as Arkansas and Kentucky had done.

United Way opposes this legislation; the group’s lobbyist Stone described it as “a solution in search of a problem.”

The Medicaid expansion population by definition must be employed and earning between 100 and 133 percent of the poverty (level). If they make under that, they are already exempt. We have seen already in Arkansas and Maine thousands of people getting cut from Medicaid rolls because their unable to thread the needle of what this reporting is asking for. These reporting requirements do not put people to work. Disabled folks have to use the same reporting process. We’re just putting yet another barrier to these people and their health insurance.

Stone shared with senators a map of Iowans on public assistance, indicating a high number of rural Iowans rely on the programs. He also said when parents are kicked off the rolls, that they get confused and think their children have been removed too. Stone pointed out,

Rural hospitals’ number one payer is Medicaid, followed by Medicare, and way down on the list was private insurance. If we did this and had an Arkansas model where eighteen or nineteen thousand people were kicked off the rolls, what would that do to our primary care where rural hospitals are already struggling? These people will still get sick.

The “expert” Stehle couldn’t answer when Schultz asked him how many Iowans would be affected by the bill.

Schultz: “Were you denied (data) when you asked for it?”

Stehle: “I wouldn’t say I was denied it, but I requested it.”

Again, only Americans for Prosperity and the Opportunity Solutions Project lobbied for this bill. A broad coalition of religious, health care, and advocacy groups opposed it.

Schultz tabled the bill.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The bottom line in this episode is greed.

The second bill mentioned above, SSB 1131, is the real money maker. By making eligibility requirements quarterly, it would make it harder for Iowans to stay enrolled in Medicaid. The fifth bill could be profitable too, but it’s primarily a challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid provisions.

The third and fourth bills are small potatoes compared to the others. They appear to be more of a communications tactic, pushing negative images about people in poverty. But those messaging bills can be enacted, unlike the first proposal about creating a picture ID for SNAP cards. Its sponsor knew the idea wasn’t legal, but holding a meeting about the bill was useful in this farce.

As this charade plays out on the Senate floor, be prepared for more stereotypes about impoverished people as “less than” the rest of us and deserving of their struggles.

Also worth noting: the faith-based social conservative group, The FAMiLY Leader, was nowhere in these discussions, while some religious organizations spoke up for the needy.

Key players in this plan to fleece Iowa taxpayers include:

  • Schultz, the Republican representing Senate district 9, is in his fifth year in the Senate, having previously served six years in the Iowa House. He has floor managed previous assaults on working Iowans, including the Chapter 20 legislation that broke the public unions last session.
  • Lobbyist McHenry is the former vice president of public policy and advocacy at the Iowa Medical Society from September 2001 to December 2010. Before that, she was the Division Administrator/Legislative Liaison for the Iowa Department of Human Services from August 1987 to August 2001. This is a classic example of someone who works in government bureaucracy, receives specialized skills, then exploits those skills to cash in at the expense of children and other citizens in need.
  • Opportunity Solutions Project is the advocacy branch of the Federation of Government Accountability, which also has ties to KOCH and Americans for Prosperity.
  • We could go on with connections to organizations serve the uber wealthy. But the real villains here are lawmakers pushing for policies that will harm vulnerable people.

    Keep that in mind for 2020, but contact your legislator now to convey your thoughts about funneling our tax revenue to out of state billionaires at the expense of most Iowans.

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