Montana Department of Health seeks to remove board that hears calls for public assistance

Montana health officials are calling on state lawmakers to eliminate a board that hears appeals from people who believe they have been wrongfully denied public assistance benefits.

Since 2016, the Public Assistance Board has heard less than 20 cases a year, and very few of them are overturned, but preparing for those appeals and board meetings takes staff time. and attorneys from the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, as proposed by the department.

Removing the appeals board would also help denied public assistance applicants appeal their cases directly to the district court, Health Department Director Charlie Brereton told lawmakers recently. Currently, unsuccessful candidates can only take their case to court after the council hears their appeals, although very few do so, according to a council member.

“I want to be very clear, with this proposal, we are not seeking to eliminate an appeal route; rather, we are streamlining the process and eliminating what we consider to be an unnecessary and underutilized step,” Brereton said.

The plan to get rid of the Board of Public Assistance is one of 14 bills the state Department of Public Health and Human Services has asked lawmakers to draft for the session that begins in January. . The proposal comes from a review of state agencies led by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Red Tape Relief Task Force, which seeks to improve efficiency and eliminate outdated or unnecessary regulations.

The three-person Public Assistance Board chairs denial appeals made by the Health Department’s Office of Administrative Hearings in nine programs: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides cash to low-income households income 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; the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program; the Weatherization Assistance Program; aid to refugees; mental health services; and Healthy Montana Kids, which is the state’s children’s health insurance program.

The proposal to eliminate the board surprised at least one of its members, who learned about it from KHN. “I haven’t heard anything from the department,” said Sharon Bonogofsky-Parker, a Billings resident appointed by Gianforte in March 2021.

The board meets every two months, Bonogofsky-Parker said. She recalled a “really good case” during her tenure in which the board reinstated benefits for a disabled veteran who had lost them due to documents forged by someone else.

But Bonogofsky-Parker estimated the board sided with department decisions about 90% of the time, because most cases involve applicants who didn’t understand or follow program rules, whose income level had changed or had another clear disqualifying factor.

The council provides a service by hearing appeals that would otherwise clog the justice system, she said. “Overall, these cases are pretty frivolous,” Bonogofsky-Parker said. “The advice is helpful in keeping a lot of these cases out of court.”

The view contrasts with that of Brereton, who described the ability of plaintiffs to file grievances quickly in court as a benefit of the proposed change.

District courts charge a $120 fee to initiate such a proceeding, according to the Lewis and Clark County District Court Clerk’s Office. This would create a potential obstacle for people trying to prove that they are eligible for public assistance. On the other hand, calls from the Board of Public Assistance are free.

State Health Department spokesman Jon Ebelt said low-income people can fill out a form to request a waiver of court fees. “This issue was considered during the conceptual stages of the bill,” he said.

Bonogofsky-Parker said she doesn’t plan to oppose the department’s proposal, despite her view that the board acts as a bulwark against frivolous court cases. The other two board members, Danielle Shyne, appointed by Gianforte, 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.

This article was reprinted from with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health policy research organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


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