Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Iowa House and Senate committees advance bills to change SNAP and Medicaid eligibility

members of the house health and human services committee meet at the iowa state capitol
Katarina Sostaric
Members of the Iowa House Health and Human Services Committee debated public assistance changes Tuesday.

Republican lawmakers in the Iowa House and Senate advanced bills Tuesday that would change eligibility requirements for low-income Iowans to get food and health care assistance, which meant the proposals survived a key statehouse deadline for most bills to get approved by a committee.

Both bills, which were amended Tuesday, would limit households seeking food assistance to a maximum of $15,000 in liquid assets and personal property. The applicant’s home, a first car of any value, and a second car worth up to $10,000 would not be included in that calculation.

The bills would direct the state to develop a new system or hire a private company to conduct frequent eligibility checks for people participating in all public assistance programs. They would require cooperation with child support enforcement to qualify for Medicaid, but not for food assistance.

They would also put the current income limit for food assistance, known as SNAP, into Iowa law so that only the legislature would be able to change it. The maximum income Iowa households can have to qualify for SNAP is 160% of the federal poverty level.

Rep. Tom Jeneary, R-Le Mars, said the bill would make the state’s system for distributing benefits more efficient and help prevent fraud.

“The legislature is dedicated to protecting Iowa’s safety net for Iowans in need, while at the same time protecting the Iowa taxpayer from paying services for ineligible individuals,” Jeneary said.

He said he does not know how much the bill would cost to implement or how much money it could save, but a nonpartisan fiscal analysis could soon provide more information.

Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, voted against the bill. She said the additional hurdles proposed in this bill will make it difficult for Iowans to qualify for assistance, many of whom are kids, people with disabilities, and elderly Iowans.

“We need to recognize that those vulnerable people will be losing not only their SNAP benefits, but their Medicaid,” Wessel-Kroeschell said. “This just seems to me to lack so much compassion for parents who are trying to feed their children and for Iowa’s elderly living on fixed incomes.”

Jeneary said the intent of the bill is not to make people go hungry, and he said people who need the services will get them.

The bills that advanced in the House and Senate are not exactly the same.

The House bill would require able-bodied adults without dependents to participate in employment and training to get SNAP benefits. It would also direct the state to seek federal permission to enact work and community engagement requirements for some Medicaid recipients.

The bill advancing in the House would seek a federal waiver to ban the use of SNAP benefits to purchase candy and non-sugar-free soda. And it includes funding for a program that encourages healthier food purchases among SNAP participants, but that would be contingent on approval of the federal waiver.

The Senate bill does not include those provisions. Instead, it details how the department should respond when it finds a change in someone’s circumstances that potentially alters their eligibility for public assistance.

Sen. Jeff Edler, R-State Center, said Senate and House Republicans are trying to reach an agreement. He said the Senate adding the asset test language was part of that.

“I agree we don’t want to see or have an ill intended consequence of being punitive to somebody trying to make it,” he said. “So we came up with a level that we felt was a reasonable, logical asset test that would get somebody the assistance they needed when they need it.”

Edler said he doesn’t want to see someone “sitting on a pile of assets” while they get public assistance at the expense of taxpayers.

Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Waukee, said this adds more difficulty for people seeking food assistance and health care, which she said will deter people from applying.

“The amendment expanding the amount of assets really doesn’t fix the overarching issue, [which] is that people have to get through this very challenging process of calculating and providing a value for everything they have before they can get $40 a month for food assistance for their families in a time of need,” she said.

Trone Garriott said she’s also concerned about putting the income limit for SNAP of 160% of the federal poverty level into state law. She said families really need 200% of the federal poverty level to get by, and said 25 states have a higher income limit than Iowa.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter