Health Law Brings Growth in Food Stamps
President Barack Obama's health care law has had a surprising side
effect: In some states, it appears to be enticing more Americans to apply for
food stamps. The AP is reporting West Virginia's food-stamp enrollment
increased 4 percent after a Medicaid expansion that was part of the health care
changes. Enrollment jumped because people were "more engaged with our systems
and more aware what they're eligible for," said Jeremiah Samples of the
Department of Health and Human Resources. National food-stamp enrollment
declined in 2013 and 2014. But in 11 states, demand rose between January 2013
and the end of 2014, the AP analysis showed.
Ten of those states expanded their Medicaid programs under the health
Six of the states employed new easy sign-up systems that helped people apply for
both Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as
food stamps, at the same time. Some used online calculators or click-the-box
features. While it's unclear exactly how much
growth can be attributed to the law and incentives it offered to states, the
increased enrollment could be expensive. The average food-stamp recipient was
paid $125.35 a month last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture,
which administers SNAP. Based on that, the nearly 632,000 people added to
food-stamp rolls in the 11 states would cost SNAP nearly $79 million a month.
"It wasn't clear to us whether the Affordable Care Act was going to be something
that would cause SNAP enrollment to go up or to go down," said Dorothy
Rosenbaum, a senior fellow at the Center
on Budget and Policy Priorities,
a Washington group that advocates for low-income people. Washington provides the
money for food stamps, but the assistance program is administered by the states,
with regulations varying from state to state because more states are planning to
upgrade their application systems for social programs, using federal money
offered by the administration through 2018. Under the new health care law, 29
states, including those governed by both Democrats and Republicans, have so far
decided to expand their Medicaid programs to cover more low-income people. Five
states are still discussing the expansion.
Sixteen states, most led by Republican opponents of the health program, are
rejecting the Medicaid expansion. In almost every state refusing to expand
Medicaid, food-stamp enrollments have been going down with the improving
economy. Among the states with growing food-stamp use, many made efforts to
improve Medicaid and food-stamp enrollment systems, using health-law funding for
call centers, document imaging, electronic data matching and other tools,
according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
food-stamp enrollment increased 2.5 percent to 2.08 million between January 2013
and December 2014, an increase of about 50,000 people in a period when the
state's unemployment rate fell from 9.1 percent to 6.2 percent. Illinois has
long let people sign up for food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits on a single
form, state officials said, but a new online application, nicknamed "ABE" for
the 16th president, is easier to use. In New
food-stamp enrollment has grown by about 22,000 people, a 5 percent increase in
14 months, since the state launched a Web-based sign-up system. "We attribute
the increase in SNAP to Medicaid expansion," said New Mexico Human Services
Department Deputy Secretary Sean Pearson. "When folks go online now, they have
the ability to apply for multiple programs in a single session."
Enrollment counselors who sign people up for Medicaid say the new systems make
it easier for people who qualify to overcome any hesitation about getting food
benefits. In Illinois, an online calculator allows people
to see how much they might get in food benefits each month.
"If it's over $100, they definitely say, 'Yeah, check the box for me,'" said
Juanita Dorantes of Chicago, who has helped people sign up for benefits for 12
years and said it's never been easier. Illinois resident Mishaun Cannon, 48, who
unexpectedly lost a good-paying hospital job last year and has been pursuing a
career-switch master's degree, signed up for Medicaid in January. She was
surprised to learn she likely would qualify for food stamps too. "I was amazed.
I said, 'Where do I apply?' Every little bit helps," Cannon said. Signing up was
a breeze, she said.
He was commissioner of the New York City Human
Resources Administration, which determined food-stamp eligibility in the city,
until 2013. The federal emphasis was on program promotion and ease of
enrollment, he said, "and has not been, 'help people get jobs.'"
With the three-year extension, more states are expected to take advantage
of the funding, which can mean millions of dollars per state and allow
technology improvements "at little to no cost," said Megan Lape of the American
Public Human Services Association, a nonprofit membership organization for state
human services officials. Some who were reluctant to sign up for food stamps
have "no reluctance at all signing up for Medicaid," Goolsby said. "They don't
see that in the same category as what we used to call welfare."