IOWA LEGISLATURE

Iowa senators propose new scrutiny for public aid recipients

The ornamental decorations of the Iowa Capitol dome are seen from outside in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (And
The ornamental decorations of the Iowa Capitol dome are seen from outside in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Majority Republicans in the Iowa Senate indicated Monday they would like to take another run at requiring Iowans who are receiving public assistance benefits to undergo more rigorous eligibility verification reviews to bolster program efficiency and weed out fraud and abuse.

Senate Study Bill 1125 would have the state Department of Human Services enlist a private vendor to verify assets, identity and other eligibility requirements for hundreds of thousands of Iowans participating in public assistance programs involving federal and state benefits no later than July 1, 2022.

“It is tried and tested technology,” said Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, who chaired a subcommittee that advanced the bill to the full Senate Commerce Committee for consideration. He said he expected the approach would improve program oversight while saving taxpayer money, but he noted eligibility ultimately would be decided by DHS officials, not the vendor, so there would be no incentive to reduce public aid participation.

Public response was divided. Scott Centorino at Opportunity Solutions Project said the approach would lower Iowa’s high rate of improper assistance payments, while critics said it would create problems for deals at a time when more Iowans are in need to food and other assistance because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are people in Iowa suffering, and this only adds to that suffering,” said Rita Carter, a lobbyist for the Iowa United Methodist Church. “We call on you to not advance this bill. It is mean-spirited. It is couched in nice words, but it attacks ... our institutions and the people that these institutions serve.”

Janee Harvey, DHS division administrator for Adult, Children and Family Services, told subcommittee members her agency is “meaningfully engaged in these activities already” to ensure that only eligible Iowans receive the correct amount of assistance as efficiently as possible. She said a new federal model is being prepared for states that should be available this spring that will require a data-sharing agreement but will not have to be purchased by Iowa.

Also, Harvey said, DHS officials are meeting with Equifax, which has proposed a free one-year trial of its income verification product for a pilot project that holds promise without requiring the agency to hire more staff. She noted the state previously contracted with a private vendor in a four-year project that did not produce savings to offset costs.

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Also, with the federally declared COVID-19 health emergency in effect for 2021, Iowa would not be allowed to disenroll Medicaid or other recipients having accepted federal funding through various CARES Act provisions.

Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, said DHS officials employ a “nimble” assessment process and wished architects of the bill had consulted with the Reynolds administration before proceeding with the new oversight legislation.

Sen. Zach Whiting, R-Spirit Lake, said he supported advancing the bill because “we have significant fraud, and we need to address it.”

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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