Today, Colorado Center on Law and Policy (CCLP) and the National Health Law Program (NHeLP) filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Bethany Pray provided testimony for Senate Bill 24-093, Continuity of Health-Care Coverage Change. CCLP is in support of SB24-093.
CCLP Policy Fellow, Milena Castañeda testified at the Medical Services Board meeting regarding emergency rules for the NEMT.
Chaer Robert provided testimony against House Bill 24-1065, Reduction of State Income Taxes. CCLP is in opposition of HB24-1065.
CCLP publishes major report on SNAP hearings
CCLP is proud to release a research report on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) hearings today. Barriers, Errors, and Due Process Denied was a major undertaking over a year in the making, with CCLP staff digging through hearing decisions, coding and analyzing data, discussing with organizational partners, and seeking input from SNAP beneficiaries themselves. We’re excited to be able to share our findings and recommendations. What we uncovered may surprise you, but it’s important to note that the systemic problems we found are solvable. Over the next few weeks, we will present various findings from the report and make the case for why the SNAP hearing process in Colorado deserves increased attention. You can also dive into the full report itself in our resource library here.
SNAP is a lifeline for Coloradans, but the system is flawed
The purpose of SNAP is simple: SNAP benefits enable Coloradans to purchase the healthy food they need to feed their families. In 2019, SNAP served over 400,000 beneficiaries in over 200,000 households, the majority living at or below the federal poverty level ($25,750 for a family of four in 2019).
Though most beneficiaries access SNAP benefits and purchase food without problems, disputes do arise. Some people are denied benefits they think they should receive. Others see their benefits reduced when they believe they shouldn’t. Still others are unfairly subjected to agency errors, and, through no fault of their own, end up owing thousands of dollars that must be repaid out of their hard-earned and limited income, or taken directly from future SNAP benefits.
Our report focuses on the moments of crisis — when claims of “overpayments” and accusations of intentional program violations (IPVs) are examined before an administrative court of law. Nearly all Coloradans take on that process alone, without the help of a lawyer.
Inefficient administration leads to beneficiary woes
A major concern among anti-poverty advocates in Colorado is the massive number of agency errors on the part of county administrators, well above the numbers seen in nearly all other states. In 2019, agency errors were responsible for two-thirds (65.6%) of all overpayment claims in Colorado, far more than both inadvertent household errors (IHEs) at 31.2%, and IPVs or fraud at 3.2%. This alarming error rate stands in contrast to the national average of 46.1%. In fact, with just over $2.3 million in claims, Colorado had the fourth worst rate of agency error in the country.
Agency errors can occur when the county makes mistakes in calculating income or fails to properly consider information that ultimately impacts the amount of benefits distributed. In some of the cases we reviewed, the county failed to properly process paperwork or simply miscalculated the appropriate SNAP benefit level. Some cases involved database glitches resulting in benefit overpayment.
Regardless of the reason, beneficiaries are on the hook to repay any benefit in excess of what they were actually supposed to receive. Close to 5,000 Colorado households faced overpayment claims in 2019. In one case, an agency failure to process reported changes in income led to a $3,033 claim that the beneficiary was required to pay back.
Federal SNAP rules require states to establish a claim when overpayments occur. However, by identifying and addressing the sources of errors, the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) should be able to substantially reduce the number of overpayments in the first place.
Long delays complicate defense of claims
While the sheer number of agency errors is troubling, the difficulty of defending against an overpayment or IPV is also heightened by long delays. Counties often fail to act on information they receive that may indicate a potential overpayment or a program violation, and in some instances, years long delays occurred.
In the cases we reviewed, it was difficult to measure the full extent of the impact of delays, because we found that the hearing decisions do not consistently include relevant dates, including the date that the discrepant information was received, the date that the overpayment claims were established, or the dates that notice was sent to beneficiaries. We were, however, able to identify numerous cases in which more than two years passed between the time that relevant information was known to the counties and when the action against the beneficiary was ultimately initiated.
To be clear, most cases were handled with prompt notice to beneficiaries, but when delays did occur, many were egregious. In one particularly alarming IPV case, nearly seven years passed between the time an investigator identified issues in the beneficiary’s reported income and the time that notice of a claim was sent. In another, benefits continued for almost a year after the beneficiary reported income that would make her ineligible, resulting in $6,863 in overpayments.
Delays can cause special hardships for SNAP beneficiaries. When claims are delayed, SNAP beneficiaries are less likely to receive notice of the overpayment or IPV. Low-income renters move particularly frequently. If notice is not received, the beneficiary may lose their chance to effectively defend against the allegations. As time passes, memories fade, and relevant documents may be lost forever. Because the potential consequence of an overpayment claim is vast, beneficiaries should be afforded every opportunity to adequately defend themselves.
Beneficiaries deserve better
Errors and delays can be incredibly costly. In our analysis of 2019 cases, we found that the median overpayment amount was $1,741. For many SNAP beneficiaries, these overpayment claims are far beyond what they are able to pay. As mentioned earlier, repayment may be made through a reduction of monthly benefit amounts, limiting access to food. Or, for those no longer in the program, the amount may be due in full. An IPV finding results in loss of much-needed benefits for a year or more. When remediable errors and delays get in the way of the purpose of the program, it’s time to re-evaluate and make changes.
First, we must improve resources and notices to beneficiaries—the entire hearing and appeals process should be more accessible. Resources to aid beneficiaries in appealing county decisions should be made widely available. Next, CDHS must investigate the sources of county errors and refine processes to ensure that these are minimized. Finally, state rules should more directly require prompt investigations, and ensure that the basis of each claim is clear.
Colorado SNAP beneficiaries deserve these changes because, ultimately, we’re talking about vital resources and fundamental rights. Stay tuned for next week’s installment as we review our findings and important recommendations to improve Colorado SNAP.