Mar 3, 2022

Lyz formerly served as an advocate at CCLP, working to increase food security for Colorado residents and coordinating organizational efforts with partners to create a responsive through-line from community needs to policy solutions.

Recent articles

CCLP’s 2024 legislative wrap-up, part 2

CCLP's 2024 legislative wrap-up focused on expanding access to justice, removing administrative burden, supporting progressive tax and wage policies, preserving affordable communities, and reducing health care costs. Part 2/2.

CCLP’s 2024 legislative wrap-up, part 1

CCLP's 2024 legislative wrap-up focused on expanding access to justice, removing administrative burden, supporting progressive tax and wage policies, preserving affordable communities, and reducing health care costs.

CCLP testifies in support of Clean Slate updates

Bethany Pray, CCLP’s Chief Legal and Policy Officer, provided testimony in support of House Bill 24-1133, Criminal Record Sealing & Expungement Changes. CCLP is in support of HB24-1133, as it is one of our priority bills.

CCLP publishes major report on SNAP hearings

by | Mar 3, 2022

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.

Recent articles

CCLP’s 2024 legislative wrap-up, part 2

CCLP's 2024 legislative wrap-up focused on expanding access to justice, removing administrative burden, supporting progressive tax and wage policies, preserving affordable communities, and reducing health care costs. Part 2/2.

CCLP’s 2024 legislative wrap-up, part 1

CCLP's 2024 legislative wrap-up focused on expanding access to justice, removing administrative burden, supporting progressive tax and wage policies, preserving affordable communities, and reducing health care costs.

CCLP testifies in support of Clean Slate updates

Bethany Pray, CCLP’s Chief Legal and Policy Officer, provided testimony in support of House Bill 24-1133, Criminal Record Sealing & Expungement Changes. CCLP is in support of HB24-1133, as it is one of our priority bills.

HEALTH:
HEALTH FIRST COLORADO (MEDICAID)

To maintain health and well-being, people of all ages need access to quality health care that improves outcomes and reduces costs for the community. Health First Colorado, the state's Medicaid program, is public health insurance for low-income Coloradans who qualify. The program is funded jointly by a federal-state partnership and is administered by the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy & Financing.

Benefits of the program include behavioral health, dental services, emergency care, family planning services, hospitalization, laboratory services, maternity care, newborn care, outpatient care, prescription drugs, preventive and wellness services, primary care and rehabilitative services.

In tandem with the Affordable Care Act, Colorado expanded Medicaid eligibility in 2013 - providing hundreds of thousands of adults with incomes less than 133% FPL with health insurance for the first time increasing the health and economic well-being of these Coloradans. Most of the money for newly eligible Medicaid clients has been covered by the federal government, which will gradually decrease its contribution to 90% by 2020.

Other populations eligible for Medicaid include children, who qualify with income up to 142% FPL, pregnant women with household income under 195% FPL, and adults with dependent children with household income under 68% FPL.

Some analyses indicate that Colorado's investment in Medicaid will pay off in the long run by reducing spending on programs for the uninsured.

FOOD SECURITY:
SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (SNAP)

Hunger, though often invisible, affects everyone. It impacts people's physical, mental and emotional health and can be a culprit of obesity, depression, acute and chronic illnesses and other preventable medical conditions. Hunger also hinders education and productivity, not only stunting a child's overall well-being and academic achievement, but consuming an adult's ability to be a focused, industrious member of society. Even those who have never worried about having enough food experience the ripple effects of hunger, which seeps into our communities and erodes our state's economy.

Community resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, exist to ensure that families and individuals can purchase groceries, with the average benefit being about $1.40 per meal, per person.

Funding for SNAP comes from the USDA, but the administrative costs are split between local, state, and federal governments. Yet, the lack of investment in a strong, effective SNAP program impedes Colorado's progress in becoming the healthiest state in the nation and providing a better, brighter future for all. Indeed, Colorado ranks 44th in the nation for access to SNAP and lost out on more than $261 million in grocery sales due to a large access gap in SNAP enrollment.

See the Food Assistance (SNAP) Benefit Calculator to get an estimate of your eligibility for food benefits.

FOOD SECURITY:
SPECIAL SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION PROGRAM FOR WOMEN, INFANTS AND CHILDREN (WIC)

Every child deserves the nutritional resources needed to get a healthy start on life both inside and outside the mother's womb. In particular, good nutrition and health care is critical for establishing a strong foundation that could affect a child's future physical and mental health, academic achievement and economic productivity. Likewise, the inability to access good nutrition and health care endangers the very integrity of that foundation.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition information for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.

Research has shown that WIC has played an important role in improving birth outcomes and containing health care costs, resulting in longer pregnancies, fewer infant deaths, a greater likelihood of receiving prenatal care, improved infant-feeding practices, and immunization rates

Financial Security:
Colorado Works

In building a foundation for self-sufficiency, some Colorado families need some extra tools to ensure they can weather challenging financial circumstances and obtain basic resources to help them and their communities reach their potential.

Colorado Works is Colorado's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and provides public assistance to families in need. The Colorado Works program is designed to assist participants in becoming self-sufficient by strengthening the economic and social stability of families. The program provides monthly cash assistance and support services to eligible Colorado families.

The program is primarily funded by a federal block grant to the state. Counties also contribute about 20% of the cost.

EARLY LEARNING:
COLORADO CHILD CARE ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (CCCAP)

Child care is a must for working families. Along with ensuring that parents can work or obtain job skills training to improve their families' economic security, studies show that quality child care improves children's academic performance, career development and health outcomes.

Yet despite these proven benefits, low-income families often struggle with the cost of child care. Colorado ranks among the top 10 most expensive states in the country for center-based child care. For families with an infant, full-time enrollment at a child care center cost an average of $15,140 a year-or about three-quarters of the total income of a family of three living at the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).

The Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP) provides child care assistance to parents who are working, searching for employment or participating in training, and parents who are enrolled in the Colorado Works Program and need child care services to support their efforts toward self-sufficiency. Most of the money for CCCAP comes from the federal Child Care and Development Fund. Each county can set their own income eligibility limit as long as it is at or above 165% of the federal poverty level and does not exceed 85% of area median income.

Unfortunately, while the need is growing, only an estimated one-quarter of all eligible children in the state are served by CCCAP. Low reimbursement rates have also resulted in fewer providers willing to accept CCCAP subsidies.