Mar 10, 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.

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SNAP report findings, part two: The hearing process

by | Mar 10, 2022

Last week, we discussed some important impacts of the SNAP hearing process here in Colorado. This week we will review the findings from CCLP’s report, Barriers, Errors, and Due Process Denied, that outline the ways in which the hearing process is difficult to navigate and does not work well for those whom the system is intended to benefit. And the stakes are high. Claims can result in loss or reduction of SNAP dollars, or obligations to pay back anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. Convictions of intentional program violations (IPVs) can result in disqualification from future benefits — from a year, up to an entire lifetime.

Very few beneficiaries utilize the hearing process to dispute claims

As we alluded to in the report, the hearing process exists because states are required to provide due process of the law before depriving beneficiaries of their public benefits. The hearing process—the opportunity to be heard, confront witnesses, and present evidence in defense—is a constitutional right of all beneficiaries.

When a beneficiary wishes to dispute an overpayment claim, they have the right to request a fair hearing, to have an administrative law judge review the evidence of the claim. Similarly, when a beneficiary is accused of an intentional program violation (IPV), they have the right to appear at an administrative disqualification hearing to defend themselves. However, our research found that very few who are eligible for a hearing actually make it front of an administrative judge.

SNAP applicants and recipients utilize the appeals process in only a small fraction of the cases where an appeal may be justified. An appeal can be requested whenever benefits are denied, reduced, terminated, or an overpayment is alleged. In 2019, 65,000 applicants were denied benefits, 39,000 recipients’ benefits were reduced or terminated, and 7,516 overpayment claims were initiated. And yet only 262 fair hearings were held. The exact reason why so few request hearings is still unknown, but we know that clear and comprehensible notices are vitally important. CCLP and partners have found notices contain confusing and sometimes inaccurate information that complicates the process for beneficiaries.

Of those who requested a fair hearing to dispute a county decision, more than half ultimately withdrew their request to be heard. While 262 fair hearings were held in 2019, an astonishing 320 requests were withdrawn before a hearing could even take place. Some requests may be withdrawn because the dispute with the county decision has been resolved; however, not enough is known about the circumstances that lead to such a high rate of withdrawal.

On the IPV side, a large proportion of individuals facing disqualification from the program end up waiving their right to a hearing. More than 65% of beneficiaries accused of intentionally violating SNAP rules sign a document that not only waives their right to be heard by an administrative law judge but will also disqualify them from the program for at least one year, while possibly placing them on the hook for repaying the state for any resultant overpayments.

SNAP advocates are rightfully alarmed by these numbers, especially as they compare to national averages. Nationally, fewer than 45% of all beneficiaries accused of intentionally violating the program sign Administrative Disqualification Hearing (ADH) waivers.

Colorado beneficiaries lose at unusually high rates

When beneficiaries do exercise their constitutional right and make it to hearing, they unfortunately face a very low probability of success. Beneficiaries lose their cases at notably high rates in Colorado. Fewer than 8% of fair hearings end in favor of beneficiaries. The remaining 92% of beneficiaries who appeal a county decision either see their benefits reduced or terminated, or they must pay the state the overpayment amount they had contested. In comparison, beneficiaries across the country win their disputes at an average rate of 41% in fair hearings.

When beneficiaries face Administrative Disqualification Hearings (ADHs), they too lose at higher-than-average rates. The rate at which Coloradans prevail in ADHs, 7.6%, is lower than the national rate of 9.7%. While Colorado beneficiaries lose their disqualification hearings more often than national counterparts, they are also accused of intentional program violations at almost twice the rate of others across the country.

SNAP beneficiaries often face hearings without legal representation

Additionally concerning, and perhaps related, when beneficiaries participate in the SNAP hearing process, they almost always engage without the benefit of professional legal representation. 95% of 2019 hearing decisions reviewed by CCLP were pro se cases, where the beneficiaries represented themselves.

Administrative benefits cases are incredibly complex. It is exceedingly difficult for beneficiaries to navigate these complexities to successfully defend themselves. Colorado Legal Services, the only state-wide legal services provider, had only 65 attorneys in 2019 to serve 750,000 Coloradans who qualified for their services. Given the high stakes involved in SNAP administrative hearings, the lack of legal representation is particularly alarming.

Significant challenges call for systemic changes

The impacts of the SNAP administrative hearing process are vast and can be devastating for some. It is important to continue to craft a system that respects constitutional rights and levels the power dynamics to allow for a fair process. In order to improve outcomes, Colorado should increase funding for legal service providers who can represent recipients of public benefits, improve the resources for SNAP beneficiaries to make the appeal process more accessible for beneficiaries, and expand training for administrative law judges on to meaningfully engage with beneficiaries who are self-represented. In future articles we’ll explore in more detail the opportunities to improve the SNAP hearing process.

Recent articles

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.