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House panel advances bill to change who qualifies for SNAP, Medicaid

iowa capitol in winter
Madeleine C King
IPR file
Republicans on a House panel advanced a bill Thursday that would change who is eligible for food and medical assistance.

Republicans on a House panel advanced a bill Thursday that would change who can qualify for food and medical assistance in Iowa.

It would establish new limits on assets Iowans could hold while receiving food assistance, known as SNAP. Under the bill, the state would also ask the federal government for permission to enforce work requirements for some Medicaid recipients. And the bill would direct the state to do additional verification of Iowans’ eligibility for SNAP and Medicaid.

Republicans on the panel said the House Health and Human Services Committee would be working on changes to the bill in the coming weeks, which would include seeking federal permission to ban the use of SNAP benefits to buy candy and soda.

Supporters of the bill say it will ensure taxpayer dollars are only spent on people who truly need the help.

A wide range of groups that advocate for low-income Iowans, people with disabilities, children, and health care organizations oppose the bill. They say people who need help with food and medical care could lose their benefits if the bill becomes law.

Journey Berzett of Urbandale told lawmakers she has a disability and relies on SNAP to buy food. She asked them to consider people like her.

“To you, I’m a stranger. You think people like me are probably the one exception who is worthy of these entitlement programs,” Berzett said. “Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you think the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness only applies to those who can afford it. What I do know is that community is about coming together and helping each other, and this bill does not do that.”

Tyler Raygor, a lobbyist for Americans for Prosperity, said he supports the bill because public assistance should be narrowly tailored.

“We think it’s important to remember we’re dealing with finite taxpayer dollars,” Raygor said. “When you have folks on these programs who don’t need them, that puts these programs in jeopardy for folks who truly do need them, like folks that we’ve heard from today.”

Only two other groups publicly supportthe bill. One is the Opportunity Solutions Project, a group associated with a conservative think tank based in Florida called the Foundation for Government Accountability. The organization has been pushing for public assistance asset tests and Medicaid work requirements in Iowa for years. The other is Iowans for Tax Relief.

Lina Tucker Reinders, the executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association, said she is very concerned about the proposed asset test. She said SNAP is a tool people can use to pull themselves out of poverty.

“When people are using the other tools available to them to do things like save for a down payment for a home to move to a neighborhood for their children, to save money in a 529 plan for their kids’ college—things that we know are effective in breaking generational poverty—it creates a cliff effect,” she said. “And so they’re punished for doing those things that they’re told are the right things to do to break the cycle of poverty.”

Other opponents of the bill say it could put SNAP benefits at risk for some Iowa families that have more than one car. They also raised concerns about how much it would cost the state to hire more people and get a new computer system to make more eligibility checks possible.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter