In Focus: Refundable Tax Credits

May 24, 2017  |  PERMALINK »

Community Eligibility: A Remedy for Lunch Shaming in Some School Districts

By Victoria Palacio

Imagine you’re a child buying lunch at school, only to have your tray taken—or even dumped—because your lunch account doesn’t have enough money. In some school districts, this is a reality.

It’s part of a disturbing trend called "lunch shaming," where schools publicly embarrass children whose parents have not paid. This includes marking students with a stamp reading “I Need Lunch Money” or giving them a cheese sandwich in place of the regular meal option. In response, the USDA is requiring school districts that participate in the national free lunch and breakfast program to post clear policies for how they’ll handle these situations. The deadline is July 1 to post policies, which will apply to the 2017-2018 school year.

Some states are approaching the issue constructively. Last month, New Mexico banned lunch shaming altogether. Texas is considering legislation that would allow students to get food from the school’s pantry when they don’t have money for meals. Others have addressed the issue through assistance from nonprofits or outside donors.

Unpaid school bills are a serious problem for many school districts. However, many students who have meal debt or come to school without lunch money are low income. This should qualify them for free or reduced-price meals. In many cases, parents don’t submit the needed paperwork because they have immigration-related concerns or their financial situations have changed since the start of the year. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) can address these challenges.

CEP allows low-income schools and school districts to secure free lunch for all their students when a certain percentage is verified as low income. This removes the administrative burden of schools collecting household applications to determine eligibility for school meals. It also removes any stigma from receiving free meals or having unpaid bills, as well as eliminates the potential for administrative errors. Currently, CEP reaches more than 8.5 million children in more than 18,000 schools. Many more are eligible but have yet to adopt it. June 30 is the deadline to opt in for the 2017-2018 school year.

Lunch shaming is psychologically harmful to children. It can also leave them without a meal or with an inadequate substitute. School districts that qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision should opt in for the upcoming school year. This is a practical way to end lunch shaming while preventing unpaid school bills.

May 16, 2017  |  PERMALINK »

What is SNAP and Who Does it Serve?

By Victoria Palacio

What: The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides assistance to individuals and families when they experience financially difficult times. SNAP benefits are relatively small, averaging $1.40 per person, per meal. SNAP helps people from a variety of household sizes, ethnicities, and lived experiences. Despite stereotypes, there is no such thing as a typical SNAP recipient; the single characteristic that connects all recipients is their need to access affordable food.

Who: SNAP provided benefits to 43 million people across the nation in January 2017. Women comprise 62 percent of non-elderly adults benefiting from SNAP. The program helps people of all races and ethnicities; 40 percent are White, 26 percent are Black, 11 percent are Latinx, 3 percent are Asian, and 1 percent are Native American. Over 80 percent of SNAP households have incomes at or below the poverty line ($24,300 for a family of four in 2016). Additionally, 75 percent of SNAP households include children (under age 18), elderly people (age 60 or older), or individuals with disabilities all of whom are members of the “vulnerable populations” that aren’t expected to work. SNAP is a particularly vital resource to people in these populations.

People with communicative, mental, or physical disabilities experience poverty and food insecurity at higher rates  than the national average. In fiscal year 2015, nonelderly people with disabilities represented 10 percent of SNAP cases.

Elderly individuals make up 11 percent of SNAP participants, and this number is likely to grow as our population continues to age. Low-income seniors are particularly at risk of the health-related consequences of food insecurity, such as poorer health outcomes and depression. Many older people live on fixed incomes and struggle to afford housing, medical costs, and food. Affording these expenses becomes even more difficult when the elderly person is head of a household. Households with grandparents raising grandchildren are almost three times as likely to be food insecure as households without grandchildren.

Children make up the largest percentage of these “vulnerable populations,” representing 44 percent of all SNAP participants. SNAP protects millions of children from food insecurity, which can lead to depression, attention deficit disorder, and other negative long-term health effects in children.

An increasing number of workers are eligible for and receive SNAP as well. This trend is a result of the growth in the low-wage job sector, especially part-time jobs that lack adequate hours and have volatile and changing schedules. Consequently, 58 percent of SNAP households with a working-age, non-disabled adult, have an employed worker in the home. 82 percent of SNAP households have employment income in the year prior to or following SNAP enrollment. Additionally, 7 percent of veterans live in poverty, and recently, SNAP has served an average of 1.7 million households with veterans annually. 

Where and Why: The number of people who depend on SNAP rises during economic downturns and generally falls when the economy improves. States hit hardest by the recession saw the largest SNAP caseload increases. Regionally, southern states have the highest levels of SNAP receipt due to their overall poverty rates. SNAP caseloads have now fallen by 11 percent—totaling more than 5 million people—since peak levels in December 2012.

SNAP is a proven anti-poverty program that benefits a racially and geographically diverse group of people. The number of people benefiting from SNAP tends to fluctuate along with the economy, and households with children, elderly, or disabled individuals tend to have the greatest need. SNAP benefits are modest, just enough to purchase a small amount of food, but they make a huge difference for individuals and families of varied background, across the country.


May 15, 2017  |  PERMALINK »

Regulatory Changes to Health Care Marketplaces Roll Back Key Protections

By Lena O’Rourke

The fate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will be debated in Congress and across the country over the next weeks and months. The American people have made clear that they support the ACA, and more people now support the ACA than the House Republican plan.

But while the public is focused on the Congressional debate on health care, the Trump Administration is quietly moving to make administrative changes that will roll back protections for the more than 12.2 million people who use the Affordable Care Act’s “marketplaces” in their states to select a health care plan.

These marketplaces provide affordable, quality coverage in every state in the country. One of the first major regulatory actions from the Trump Administration was changes to the rules under which these marketplaces operate. While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) claims that its new rules will “stabilize” the market and encourage more insurers to participate, they actually roll back key protections for individuals and families and will do little to stabilize health insurance markets. In fact, one change shortens the open enrollment period for 2018, which may discourage “healthy procrastinators” from buying insurance and make the risk pool for insurers more costly.

The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) submitted comments last month to HHS on the proposed rule. CLASP recommended that HHS:

  • Protect consumers from being terminated by requiring insurers to offer and honor a grace period on unpaid premiums;
  • Maintain an appropriately long open enrollment period similar to previous years and guarantee an extensive outreach and enrollment period;
  • Eliminate the significant paperwork burden of pre-verifying eligibility; and
  • Maintain comprehensive coverage and federal network adequacy standards.

Unfortunately, HHS failed to make any of these changes and finalized the rule largely as proposed—even making a few sections worse. 

Here are a few things the final rule will do: 

  • Shorten the open enrollment period (OEP). The rule cuts in half the OEP for coverage in calendar year 2018. A shortened OEP means that fewer people will enroll overall, and it may deter younger, healthier applicants from enrolling. Cutting the OEP in half may also have a dampening effect on Medicaid enrollment. Data suggest that states that opted through the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid will see a bump in enrollment during OEPs thanks to the “welcome mat” effect of open enrollment. This means that consumers, having heard that health insurance is available during the OEP, will seek out coverage and determine their eligibility for Medicaid, rather than go directly to the marketplace.
  • Increase unnecessary and burdensome paperwork requirements. The federally facilitated marketplaces will now require pre-verification of special enrollment period (SEP) eligibility beginning this June. Enrollment would be placed on hold until the consumer successfully verifies eligibility, and enrollment information would not be transferred to the provider until eligibility is verified. This unreasonable paperwork burden establishes a huge barrier to getting coverage and may result in wrongful rejections and/or delayed care. This provision will particularly affect coverage for people whose income fluctuates from month to month and who therefore may move back and forth between Medicaid and the marketplace.
  • Eliminate grace periods. The rule allows health plans to require that customers satisfy any unpaid premiums and allows plans to terminate customers who don’t. It permits providers to refuse to start coverage for consumers with past-due premiums until these debts are paid (including during special enrollment periods). This means that plan providers can terminate or refuse coverage to any consumer with a past debt, without offering a grace period or a minimum payment to continue their health insurance coverage.
  • Increase consumer costs while pushing down the value of care. The rule makes it easier for providers to offer less generous coverage in exchange for lower premiums. In practice, this provision translates to plans having significantly higher cost-sharing and out-of-pocket costs. Consumers who do not qualify for cost-sharing reductions will be forced to choose either paying significantly more for comprehensive coverage or paying more out-of-pocket expenses in a bare-bones plan.

In sum, this rule will make coverage more expensive and shift costs to consumers who will have to pay more to get comprehensive benefits. The rule takes a big step backward for consumers and does nothing to stabilize their access to care.

Through both the Medicaid expansion and the tax credits for marketplace plans, the Affordable Care Act has dramatically increased the share of people who have health insurance. This has improved people's health, removed financial burdens, and allowed people to start businesses without fear of losing insurance. Contrary to Trump Administration claims, the ACA is not collapsing. Both Congress and the Administration should stop their current path of undermining protections and destabilizing the marketplace with uncertainty—and should be held accountable if they continue.

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