FRANKFORT, Ky. — A Republican-backed plan to revamp Kentucky's public benefits system would cause “major disruptions” for people seeking assistance by increasing a state cabinet's workload without supplying the funding to bolster staffing, the agency told lawmakers.
The House-passed legislation would tighten public assistance rules, with the goal of steering more people into self-sufficiency. The measure drew a series of objections from state Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander. His critique was included in a recent letter to lawmakers.
The bill would make it “harder for Kentuckians in need to get assistance for food and health care,” said Friedlander, a key member of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear's administration.
Supporters insist the bill keeps the social safety net in place for those who need it.
The cabinet estimates it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to implement and administer the bill's reporting and verification rules. The House recently sent the measure to the Senate, where GOP leaders took procedural steps that could allow quick action once lawmakers reconvene next week.
Those estimates were greeted with a dose of skepticism from a leading House Republican.
“We are aware of the cabinet’s fiscal impact statement but remain cautiously skeptical since the current administration’s figure is more than 10 times the amount we received when a similar piece of legislation was considered before the pandemic began," House Speaker Pro Tem David Meade said.
He acknowledged that inflation has caused prices to surge, but said lawmakers are seeking more information to “clarify” how the estimated costs skyrocketed to implement the legislation.
"I would hope it is not a reflection of management at the cabinet level,” Meade said.
Meade and House Speaker David Osborne are the bill's lead sponsors.
In his letter, Friedlander said the proposal lacks funds to bolster staffing to administer the rules. He warned of its consequences for Kentuckians seeking Medicaid coverage or support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps..
“With a limited staff that is already stretched to the limit for current SNAP and Medicaid eligibility decisions, CHFS will not be able to meet the unfunded mandates of House Bill 7,” he wrote. “The workload increase would cause a backlog of cases in many areas, including child care, SNAP and Medicaid and cause major disruptions for individuals attempting to access services.”
Friedlander told a legislative panel recently that the agency would need to hire hundreds of additional workers to oversee the new rules.
The bill represents a long-running priority among many Republican lawmakers to tighten rules for public assistance. The goal, they said, is to wean more Kentuckians off such programs as Medicaid and food stamps and into jobs that make them self-sufficient.
The bill would add new rules for such benefits as food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance for the poor, while standards for food stamp eligibility would be tightened. In some cases, “able-bodied” Medicaid recipients would be required to participate in 80 hours per month of “community engagement” activities, such as jobs or volunteering.
House Democrats, unable to stop the measure, warned that it would hurt many of Kentucky's most vulnerable residents. One urban Democratic lawmaker cited statistics showing the importance of public food and health care assistance in rural, GOP-leaning areas.
Meade countered that critics were “fear mongering.” Supporters said that people in need — including children, the elderly and single moms — would not lose benefits.
“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,” Meade said during the House debate.
The legislation is House Bill 7.
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