DHHS director defends making public benefits easier to access, Republicans concerned about fraud

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A new Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) policy change is set to go into effect Friday that will ease requirements for public assistance, but some senators believe the change could increase fraudulent claims.

DHHS Director Robert Gordon and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, July 26, 2019 | Nick Manes

DHHS Director Robert Gordon met with members of both the state Senate Health Policy and Human Services and the Community Health and Human Services Appropriations committees Thursday to give an overview of the upcoming changes.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Gordon announced earlier this month the department will be enforcing a larger asset limit aimed at making access to food assistance and other public benefits easier for families.

Effective Friday, families can have up to $15,000 in assets and still be eligible for food assistance, cash assistance and state emergency relief.

New: Whitmer, DHHS announce plan to ease access to public assistance

As it stands, asset limits range from $500 for State Emergency Relief, to $3,000 for the Family Independence Program and other cash assistance programs to $5,000 for food assistance. 

The policy change also eliminates vehicle considerations for cash and food assistance during asset tests and allows applicants and recipients to self-report.

Sen. Tom Barrett (left) at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull

Some Republicans shared concerns that the changes could end up putting greater stress on taxpayers.

“Is there any consideration by the administration about the appropriateness of an individual who may have $14,000 in their bank account coming to the state of Michigan and asking my constituents to basically pay for some of their needs to buy their groceries, and other things like that? Many of my constituents may not even have $14,000,” said state Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville). “I’m not saying we should require people to spend down to $150, but I am saying that look, we all go through life changes.”

The policy changes are not expected to cause a large spike in participation, Gordon said.  

He told senators that only 2% of applicants exceeded the set asset limits prior to these changes, but the new policy would cut back the work of DHHS caseworkers. That was a consideration in making the policy change. 

“Our perspective is that this is not a productive use of taxpayer dollars or of our caseworkers’ time,” Gordon said. 

Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon | Casey Hull

The Legislature approved Whitmer’s request for $3.4 million increase in the Office of Inspector General budget to prevent and monitor fraud and abuse in all its programs.

“We remain strongly committed to program integrity,” Gordon said during the policy change announcement. “Caseworkers will still be free to use their judgment to ask for documents when reports are questionable. Intentionally false reports are crimes subject to prosecution.”

Michigan is among the most restrictive in the nation for people applying for public assistance benefits. Currently 34 states have no asset test for food assistance under the federal Supplemental Assistance Program (SNAP). Among the 16 states that do require asset tests, Gordon said 11 states do not require paperwork verification.

“This has been a major priority for us year after year, and the Legislature has let this bad policy linger for too long,” Michigan League for Public Policy President and CEO Gilda Jacobs said in a press release Thursday. “Now that there’s positive momentum to change it at the administrative level, we hope state lawmakers will get on board and help struggling Michiganders become more financially independent instead of forcing them to spend their emergency savings to put food on the table.”

Sen. Curtis Hertel | Casey Hull

State Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing) supports the updated asset limits to public benefits and said the department’s changes “make perfect sense, economically speaking and is morally right.”

“Most of the people on these programs are working, they’re working hard, and may have a momentary hit in their working status or they have a reduction in income,” he said. “To punish these people and make them jump through a bunch of hoops to get temporary help doesn’t make any sense whatsoever and is a waste of state money.”