FRANKFORT — A bill to overhaul public assistance in Kentucky moved closer to becoming law on Monday despite questions about its potential multimillion-dollar price tag and protests that those eligible for assistance the will lose.
House Bill 7 would impose layers of new rules and reporting requirements on people who received assistance from programs such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
It passed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Monday on a 9-2 vote and now goes to the Senate, although the House must accept the changes before final approval.
House Republican leaders support the plan, which they say would tighten controls on these programs and encourage more people to move from welfare to work.
“The goal is to make sure people who really need these benefits get them,” said Rep. David Meade, president of the Pro Tem Chamber and main sponsor of HB 1.
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“We cannot allow the fraud to continue unchecked,” added House Speaker David Osborne, also a sponsor.
But opponents of the bill argue that fraud in these programs is low and already controlled by the state. They argue that HB 7 will remove benefits from people who qualify but cannot keep up with the additional reporting and verification requirements.
“The wording of this bill would increase barriers and red tape for Kentuckians who most need health coverage, treatment for substance use disorders, treatment for behavioral health, childcare and food assistance,” said Eric Friedlander, Cabinet Secretary for Health and Family. Services, says the committee.
Plus, most people who get health coverage through Medicaid and are able to work already do so — except for children, the elderly and people with disabilities, said Cara Stewart of Kentucky Voices for Health. , an advocacy coalition.
“The rest of the other people are working,” Stewart said. “Where do they work? You see them every day.”
Many workers in grocery stores, restaurants, grocery stores and other low-wage jobs depend on Medicaid for health care, she said.
While some of SNAP’s provisions have been relaxed from a previous version of HB 7, additional rules will make it even harder for people to get and keep food benefits, said Cassidy Wheeler, with Feeding Kentucky, a food bank organization based in Frankfurt. .
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“A lot of students are already hungry,” said Wheeler, a former school teacher. “Commonwealth schools are already struggling to meet the needs of their students and this bill will make it even harder.”
Questions remain about the cost to the practice of implementing all the changes in HB 7.
The sponsors presented a revised version of the bill on Monday which they said addressed some concerns, but did not specify a cost.
An early estimate by the firm put the cost at $431 million for additional personnel and technology. The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy reconciled the costs to $255 million, mostly in state money, after sponsors made several changes to the bill in the House.
Meade said Monday he was skeptical of the cost estimates and believes the firm already has the staff and systems in place to handle much of the work HB 7 would generate.
But Friedlander said his agency would be required to hire at least 500 additional workers at a time when it is already struggling to fill vacancies. Workers would be required to help with paperwork, verify information, monitor recipients and field calls from people with questions, he said.
“I am very concerned about the additional reporting requirements,” he said. “I believe this will overwhelm our systems.”
The version presented to the Senate committee on Monday represented the latest iteration of the bill that had gone through multiple changes since it was introduced on March 1 as a priority bill for Republicans who control the House.