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GOP Senators Advance Bill Requiring Additional Checks Of Public Assistance Eligibility

Iowa’s Capitol on a cold snowy sunny afternoon.
John Pemble
IPR file
Republicans on a Senate subcommittee advanced a bill that would require the state to conduct additional verification of Iowans’ eligibility for food assistance and other types of public aid.

Republicans on a Senate subcommittee advanced a bill Monday that would require the state to conduct additional verification of Iowans’ eligibility for food assistance and other types of public aid.

The Iowa Department of Human Services would have to establish a new computer system or contract with a third-party vendor that would run asset, income and identity checks for those who apply for or are enrolled in Medicaid, the children’s health insurance program, food assistance, or cash assistance.

If the computer program finds any discrepancies, DHS would provide a written notification to the applicant. Under the bill, they would have 10 days to respond, and DHS could deny or terminate benefits if they don’t respond. DHS would continue to refer suspected fraud cases to investigators at the Department of Inspections and Appeals.

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, is leading the effort to pass this bill, and has led similar efforts in past years.

“All we’re trying to do is make the asset verification, identification verification, their location—trying to make sure that that can be done as efficiently as possible and as accurately as possible,” Schultz said.

But Janee Harvey of DHS said it would impede existing efforts to make eligibility checks more accurate and efficient. Harvey said the federal government is already requiring states to join a database by the end of this year that would improve eligibility checks, and the state wouldn’t have to pay for it.

Harvey said DHS is also meeting with Equifax to discuss a possible free one-year trial of their income verification product, and that a previous contract with a third-party income verification service did not result in savings for the state.

“The current bill prevents DHS from determining what data will be accessible to us through [the federal database], would prevent us from conducting a cost-benefit analysis through the free trial product that Equifax is offering, and it will result in less federal funds and support for Iowans while simultaneously increasing state expenditures for an income verification system and to support additional staff,” Harvey said.

Republicans in the Iowa Senate passed a nearly identical bill during the 2020 legislative session, but the House of Representatives did not take it up before the COVID-19 pandemic cut the session short. A nonpartisan fiscal analysis from last year estimated that bill would cost the state $1.8 million in the first year of implementation and would save the state $12.3 million in the second year.

Since then, the pandemic and the derecho have led to an increased need for food aid and other types of assistance.

“More Iowans than ever before are turning to our food pantries, our churches, and our private nonprofits for help right now,” said John Boller, executive director of the Coralville Community Food Pantry. “Public assistance programs are critical in getting Iowans extra help that food pantries and churches simply cannot provide.”

Boller added this bill would be an additional burden on struggling families, and the food pantries and churches that help them.

The bill would also require DHS to review the assets of each household member of an applicant for food assistance, and require that applicants cooperate with the child support recovery unit in order to receive benefits.

Americans For Prosperity lobbyist Drew Klein said the bill would help ensure assistance is going to those who truly need it.

“The reality is, this is a way to streamline the verification checks that are already taking place, make those more automatic so they can happen more often, and I think the effect of that is we end up elevating and restoring public trust in the welfare system,” Klein said.

Schultz and Sen. Zach Whiting, R-Spirit Lake, voted to advance the bill. Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, voted against it.

The Iowa Senate also passed a bill last year to add work reporting requirements for some Medicaid members. This kind of change requires approval from the federal government, and the Biden administration has indicated it will not approve states’ attempts to add such requirements.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter