Leaders fear new law
will create barriers
to basic necessities

Catholic leaders in the state are concerned that a new law, aimed at improving Kentucky’s public benefits system, will make it difficult for needy individuals to access necessities such as food and health care.

House Bill 7, which took effect July 14, mainly affects eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid. The changes were created in part to curb fraud in the system.

Deacon Keith McKenzie, who serves at St. Augustine Church, helped organize a panel discussion at the end of June to create awareness about House Bill 7.

“Where’s the dignity for our brothers and sisters in Christ?” asked Deacon McKenzie.

Some in state government “believe fraud is rampant,” he noted. “Research up to this point shows it’s not.”

The law meant to combat fraud will instead place “barriers on resources that are basic human rights,” said Deacon McKenzie.

The Catholic Conference of Kentucky (CCK), which represents the commonwealth’s four bishops in matters of public policy, opposed the bill when it was being considered by lawmakers.

Jason D. Hall, the CCK’s executive director, said the new law and the changes it brings will place a burden on individuals and families who are already struggling.

According to details from House Bill 7 the following are some changes coming to the public benefits system:

  • One of the changes to Medicaid is the creation of a work requirement program for beneficiaries with the goal of getting able-bodied individuals to find employment offering comprehensive health insurance coverage.
  • It will also require individuals receiving SNAP to file paperwork online with the state to prove continued eligibility for benefits, said Hall. If they fail to do this, they can be locked out of the system. Before this new legislation, the state conducted investigations to determine if individuals were eligible to continue receiving benefits.
  • The state will investigate to ensure that individuals receiving cash benefits are using the money for items and services necessary for the family’s welfare, such as clothing, housing, utilities and child care. Violations can result in monetary fines and loss of benefits.

“That kind of enforcement for folks on the margins struggling to feed their family and access health care is a major burden. … Enforcement is of course important; we don’t want fraud to run rampant. But that burden should be on the state to investigate and on providers who are receiving the money,” Hall said. “HB 7 shifts that burden to the recipients of benefits by making them jump through more hoops. That is very unlikely to prevent a lot of fraud, but it will make it more difficult for vulnerable Kentuckians to meet basic needs during difficult times.”

Katie Deering, a young mother of three, agreed that the new policies will make navigating these programs harder.

Deering, who spoke at the panel discussion, said she works with homeless individuals and those recovering from addiction — a group she said will be directly impacted. Deering herself receives SNAP benefits, she said. The application process to obtain public assistance was challenging before the new rules took effect and she’s seen the frustration it causes, she said. One of the changes her clients will see is a work or volunteer requirement as a means of keeping their benefits.

“Homeless clients can’t turn in paperwork. Others are required to be in treatment six days a week. How can they volunteer and do work hours if they’re supposed to be focusing on their mental health?” she asked.

Some of her clients, when faced with barriers to getting benefits, become “really frustrated and a lot of the time they just give up,” she said.

Deering — who has an infant who became ill after birth — said she recently experienced challenges to keeping her benefits (prior to the new stricter measures). Her SNAP benefits were stopped after she switched jobs, she said. It took a month to get them re-instated.

“I spent hours on the phone when I should have been worried about my sick child,” she said.

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