Montana health officials are asking state lawmakers to eliminate a board that hears appeals from people who believe they have been wrongly denied public assistance benefits.
Since 2016, the Board of Public Assistance has heard fewer than 20 cases a year, and very few of those have been overturned, but preparing for those appeals and board meetings takes time for state Department of Public Health and Human Services staff members and attorneys, according to the department’s proposal. .
Getting rid of the appeals board would help public assistance applicants who are denied appeal their cases directly to district court, Health Department Director Charlie Brereton told lawmakers recently. Currently, rejected applicants can take their case to court only after the board hears their appeal, though very few do, according to a board member.
“I want to be very clear, with this proposal we do not intend to foreclose an appeal; Rather, we are streamlining the process and eliminating what we see as an unnecessary and redundant step,” Brereton said.
The plan to get rid of the public assistance board is one of 14 bills the state Department of Public Health and Human Services has asked legislators to draft for the session that begins in January. 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 Greg Gianforte’s Red Tape Relief Task Force, which seeks to improve efficiency and eliminate outdated or unnecessary regulations.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-person Board of Public Assistance presides over appeals of denials made by the Health Department’s Office of Administrative Hearings on nine programs: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides cash to low-income families with children; the 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, which is the state’s children’s health insurance program.
The proposal to drop the board came as a surprise to at least one of its members, who learned of it from KHN. Billings resident Sharon Bonofsky-Parker, who was hired by Gianforte in March 2021, said, “I haven’t heard anything from the department.
Bonogofsky-Parker said the board meets monthly. He recalled a “really good case” during his tenure where the board restored benefits to a disabled military veteran who had lost them due to someone else’s falsified documents.
But Bonogofsky-Parker estimates that the board sides with the department’s decision about 90% of the time because most cases involve applicants who don’t understand or follow program rules, whose income levels vary, or who have some other obvious disqualification factor.
The board provides a service by hearing appeals that would otherwise clog the court system, he said. “By and large, these cases are pretty trivial,” Bonogofsky-Parker said. “This board is effective in keeping many cases out of court.”
The view contrasts with Brereton’s, who described the ability of applicants to file court complaints more quickly as a benefit of the proposed changes.
According to the Lewis and Clark County District Court Clerk’s Office, the district court charges a $120 fee to initiate such a proceeding. This would create a potential barrier for people trying to prove they qualify for public assistance. In contrast, Board of Public Assistance appeals are free.
State Health Department spokesman John Ebelt said low-income people can fill out a form to request a court fee waiver. “This issue was considered at the conceptual stage of the bill,” he said.
Bonogofsky-Parker said she doesn’t plan to oppose the department’s proposal, though she views the board as a deterrent against frivolous court cases. Two other board members, Gianforte appointees Daniel Shine and Carolyn Pease-Lopez, a holdover from 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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