Montana health officials are asking state lawmakers to eliminate a board that hears appeals from people who believe they were wrongfully denied public assistance benefits.
Since 2016, the Board of Public Assistance has heard fewer than 20 cases a year, and very few of them have been overturned, but in preparation for those appeals and board meetings, the state Department of Public Health and It takes time from human services staff members and attorneys, according to the department’s proposal.
Health Department Director Charlie Bratton recently told lawmakers that getting rid of the appeals board would also allow rejected public assistance applicants to appeal their cases directly to district court. . Currently, rejected applicants can take their cases to court when the board hears their appeals, although very few do, according to one board member.
“I want to be very clear, with this proposal we are not trying to eliminate the appeals pathway. Rather, we are streamlining and eliminating what we believe to be an unnecessary and underutilized process. See that as a step forward,” Brereton said.
The plan to get rid of the Board of Public Assistance is one of 14 bills the state Department of Health and Human Services has asked lawmakers to draft for the January session. The proposal comes from a review of state agencies under Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Red Tape Relief Task Force, which seeks to improve efficiency and eliminate outdated or unnecessary regulations.
The three-member Board of Public Assistance presides over appeals of denials by the health department’s Office of Administrative Hearings in nine programs: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides cash to low-income families with children; Is. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Medicaid, the federal-state program that pays for health care for low-income people. developmental disability services; Low Income Energy Assistance Program; Weatherization Assistance Program; refugee assistance; mental health services; and Healthy Montana Kids, the state’s children’s health insurance program.
The proposal to abolish the board came as a surprise to at least one of its members, who learned about it from KHN. “I haven’t heard anything from the department,” said Sharon Bonogowski-Parker, a Billings resident who was appointed by Gianforte in March 2021.
Bonogowski-Parker said the board meets every other month. He recalled a “really good case” during his tenure in which the board restored benefits to a disabled military veteran who had lost them because of someone else’s forged documents.
But Bonogofsky-Parker estimated that the board sided with the department’s decisions about 90% of the time because most cases involved applicants who didn’t understand or follow the program’s rules, whose income levels changes, or who have some other obvious factor of incapacity.
He said the board provides a service by hearing appeals that would otherwise clog up the court system. “By and large, these cases are pretty frivolous,” Bonogowski-Parker said. “The board is useful in keeping many of these cases out of court.”
This view contrasts with Brereton, who cited the ability of applicants to quickly file court complaints as a benefit of the proposed change.
District courts charge a $120 fee to initiate this type of action, according to the Lewis and Clark County District Court Clerk’s Office. This would create a potential hurdle for people trying to prove they qualify for public assistance. In contrast, Board of Public Assistant appeals are free.
State Health Department spokesman Jon Ablett said low-income people can fill out a form to request a court fee waiver. “This issue was considered during the conceptual stages of the bill,” he said.
Bonogowski-Parker said she doesn’t plan to oppose the department’s proposal, even though she believes the board works against frivolous court cases. The other two board members, Gianforte appointees Daniel Shine and Carolyn Paez-Lopez, who is related to former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, did not respond to phone or email messages.
The Interim Committee on Children, Families, Health, and Human Services will draft the bill for consideration by the full Legislature in the 2023 session.
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