CCH testifies on why Rauner’s proposed changes to the public benefits appeals process would hurt poor people

The Law Project at CCH requested that the state hold a public hearing on proposed changes to the appeals process used by the Illinois Department of Human Services. The changes proposed by the Rauner administration (Illinois Register, May 29)  would severely limit poor people’s ability to access public benefits they need, including Medicaid, SNAP food stamps, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Public hearings took place in Springfield (Aug. 25) and in Chicago (Aug. 26), covered by the Chicago Sun-Times. The following is Youth Futures Attorney Graham Bowman’s testimony from the Chicago hearing:

I am an attorney with the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. As our practice’s name suggests, we exclusively represent individuals in the Chicago area who are living without housing or are in danger of losing their homes. I’m here to today to talk about the important role the SNAP, Medicaid, and TANF programs have in helping my clients create stability in their lives. But I’d also like to bring attention to the difficulty they have accessing these critical benefits as well as express our deep concern with these proposed rules that will severely restrict their ability to obtain them. 

Graham Bowman is an attorney with the CCH Law Project (Chicago Sun-Times)
Graham Bowman is an attorney with the CCH Law Project (Chicago Sun-Times)

The Law Project has defended the rights of homeless adults and youth for over 20 years. My work focuses exclusively on assisting homeless youth attain stability and independence with the help of public benefits and access to health care. Many of my clients grew up without consistent support from parents or other adults and were left to navigate the complexities of the adult world alone. Many of them lack an adequate education while at the same time they suffer from severe mental health conditions that are due in no small part to the constant stress they experience as the result of their past traumas and their present unstable access to food, shelter, and other basic necessities.

During the time I have been doing this work I have seen the way people are able to escape a hole once they know where their next meal is coming from, have the money to buy their newborn a crib, and a medical card that allows them to see a psychiatrist to talk about the things that happened to them as a child.

But I’ve also witnessed the remarkable rate at which mistakes are made by the Department of Human Services (DHS) while administering these programs as a result of that agency being responsible for assisting so many needy people with so few resources.

Clearly eligible applicants are inappropriately denied because verification documents were never received, notices are sent to clients too late or not at all, overloaded caseworkers forget important exceptions to eligibility rules and unlawfully deny hungry children and youth. And most frustrating to anyone who has ever tried, it is almost universally impossible to talk to anyone at a local DHS office by phone. When a Medicaid, SNAP, or TANF recipient loses their benefits or their application is denied, practically speaking, it is nearly impossible to find out why.

On numerous occasions I have had to help diabetic clients figure out where to get their next refill of insulin when their Medicaid was cut off inexplicably, or help a young pregnant woman find a food pantry while she waits for a new application interview for SNAP after her benefits were cut the month before.

Although imperfect, the Department of Human Services appeals process is the one mechanism that Illinoisans who are eligible for these programs have for solving the inevitable problems that arise when you try to administer programs this large. Instead of reapplying when a person is denied or terminated from a program — which clogs an already traffic-jammed system with new applications, verification documents, notices, and meetings with caseworkers — applicants can file an appeal and receive an informal meeting with a person at their local office, where the two of them can determine what went wrong in the process by looking at the case file together, fix the problem, and move on.

There are numerous problems with these proposed rules that affect every step of the public benefits application process, from deficient notices to restrictions on legal representation. These issues that have been discussed at length in comments submitted by my colleagues at the Legal Assistance Foundation (LAF), Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, and Prairie State Legal Services, and we strongly support their detailed analyses on behalf of persons in Illinois experiencing homelessness.

I would like to point out only four of the changes in these rules that will severely limit the appeals process, as a sample of the larger problem with them:

Sections 14.500 and 14.510 will require appellants to provide any evidence they would like to be considered in their appeal three days prior to the hearing. They will also now have the burden of proof of showing that the agency’s action was incorrect. Given that the appeals hearing is often the first time when a denied or terminated applicant can find out what went wrong with their case, it is impossible for them to know what evidence to submit ahead of time, much less prove the agency was wrong.

Must disturbingly, sections 14.20 and 14.470 eliminate the requirement that hearing officers be impartial, which is a stark violation of federal law. The right to present one’s case in front of an impartial hearing officer is a basic tenant of due process and federal law. Without that core protection, the entire appeals process is at risk.

Not only are the appellants now placed at a severe disadvantage by placing the burden on them to prove their case to a potentially biased hearing officer, using evidence they must supply ahead of time regarding an agency action they will only learn about the day of the hearing, the rules limit their ability to be represented by an attorney or other advocate.

Section 14.480 only allows one person to be listed as an approved representative on an applicant’s case at a time. Many of my clients were first assisted in applying for benefits by a social service agency that listed itself as their approved representative in order to help with the application process. Later, they retain me to represent them during the appeal. If these rules went into effect, they would make it impossible for many of my clients to have a legal advocate represent them in an appeal hearing because they already have a representative on their case.

Lastly, for the first time, the rules appear to separate the Medicaid and non-Medicaid appeals processes into two separate tracks. This would in one stroke double the complexity and burdensomeness of the appeals process for not only the applicant, but also the cash strapped Department of Human Services. It would do so needlessly when many times both a SNAP and Medical case turn on the same set of facts.

If these specific provisions and many others in the proposed rules are finalized as they are currently written, they will severely harm countless vulnerable Illinoisans and create unnecessary dysfunction within the Department of Human Services at a time when this state is already struggling to keep basic services running. Lines at local offices will get longer, the number of new applications the Department is required to process will increase, and most importantly, people will not be able to access these programs on which they rely desperately.

Thank you for your time.