Portage County government steps up to replace federal welfare cuts

The flag of Portage County. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

SNAP’s Emergency Allotment program is set to expire at the end of February, but Portage County commissioners have a solution.

They originally intended on funneling $1 million of the county’s ARPA funds to area nonprofit agencies, but are instead directing the entire amount (minus a consultant and accounting fee) to county food assistance programs.

That’s good news for the 14,112 county residents who are facing down the loss of at least $95 a month.

Portage County’s many emergency food pantries may apply for the funding, ensuring that as many people as possible can continue to access needed food, said Kellijo Jeffries, director of the Portage County Job and Family Services department. 

Nationally recognized nonprofit organizations like the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank may be able to negotiate the application process more easily than small church pantries, County Commissioner Sabrina Christian-Bennett said.

“Even though they provide food to people, they don’t necessarily have the best accounting practices. They’re all volunteers. All they’re trying to do is make sure people are eating,” she said. “That’s why we had to hire someone to help those folks, those nonprofit pantries that don’t have an accounting person on staff, or a secretary.”

Instead of telling the volunteers they were out of luck, Christian-Bennett said the commissioners “took the next step and said, ‘Let us help you. We want to make sure the money gets to you so that the folks in Portage County can get served.’”

Even before the commissioners acted, David Shea, director of Community Action Council of Portage County, asked Christian-Bennett to rescind his agency’s request of nearly $43,000

for a technology infrastructure improvement project.

“I thought it was the right thing to do,” Shea said. “We wanted to do some security stuff, but with the impending food benefit cuts, the food is much more important. This is a good opportunity for the commissioners to put the money where it’s really needed.”

Shea, a member of the county’s emergency food and shelter board (FSB), said the group used to allocate the roughly $67,000 it receives in annual federal funding equally between food, shelter and utilities. In the past couple years, he said, the group has moved to a 40-40-20 model, with utilities getting the short straw.

“I felt that food and shelter needed it more than utilities,” Shea said. “We can help a lot of people. There’s not a lot of money for food. There’s not a lot of money for shelter. Food is probably the worst of the three because the only direct funding the county gets at all for things like Change Hunger is the FSB, and that’s not a lot of money.”

It’s the difference between dinner and an empty plate, and March 1 is coming soon.

“We’re going to move it and we’re going to try to move it fast once we get everything together and once we get applications back,” Christian-Bennett said. “We know March 1, there’s going to be a big influx.”

Medicaid cuts on the horizon

The news gets worse. During the pandemic the federal government gave Ohio Medicaid a $2 million shot in the arm to keep people insured, but that program is set to end March 31.

Statewide, that means some 200,000 people will no longer be eligible for health insurance under Medicaid.

“In March of 2020 we had 28,745 individuals in Portage on Medicaid, and as of December we had 37,707, so a little over 8,000 individuals that benefited from health care over that period,” Jeffries said.

In January, the number changed to 37,971 people covered by Medicaid in Portage County.

The state Medicaid department “does not believe that all of that population will lose Medicaid, but there’s a probability that the majority will,” she said. “Effective May 1, individuals will be coming off those rolls.”

“Come March, people could potentially start getting their disenrollment notices, but we will not see any disenrollment from the Medicaid program until May 1. No coverage will be ended until May 1,” JFS Program Administrator Rebecca Abbott said.

With such a small window of time, Jeffries told the commissioners she is using funds earmarked for staff overtime and other initiatives to pay JFS employees who must review an unspecified number of Medicaid recipients for continued eligibility.

“We’re not necessarily going to have to touch every case that is out there. It all depends on how many cases Medicaid is able to verify each month without requiring caseworker interaction,” Abbott said. “For the ones that Medicaid can’t verify, those are the ones we’re going to have to touch.”

Every potential case raises Christian-Bennett’s anxiety.

“Let’s take SNAP away, let’s reduce the number of free and reduced lunches, and, hey, let’s get them off Medicaid,” said Christian-Bennett with frustrated sarcasm.

Free and reduced lunches? That’s right. A March 2020 federal waiver that provided free breakfasts and lunches to students regardless of family income expired June 30. The families will have to recertify their eligibility.

“Before, the guidelines were sort of lax. Now they’re not,” Christian-Bennett said. “They have to go back to pre-pandemic guidelines, and that means a lot of those people probably won’t qualify. They — Medicaid or JFS — have to check the eligibility for every single one of them.”

Staff will be reviewing all the fall-out cases, however many there might be, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. most weekdays, and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. most Saturdays, based on availability of the Ohio Benefits Worker portal. Not every case will involve personal interviews, and the overtime will mostly involve voluntary telework staff can do at home, Jeffries said.

Some residents, she said, will end up with nothing.

Even with the Affordable Care Act, “you still have to be able to qualify on the marketplace, and you still have to pay money. With Medicaid, there was no money. With everything else being reduced, what’s the chances of that? Are you going to eat or are you going to have medical insurance?”

JFS will refer people who lose their Medicaid and cannot afford insurance through the ACA to getcoveredohio.org, which is staffed with navigators willing to help people locate affordable sources of insurance. Getcoveredohio.org can also be reached by phone at 833-628-4467.

Abbott also encourages all Medicaid recipients to make sure their contact — address, phone number, and email — information is up to date, so they are sure to receive all JFS correspondence. Failure to maintain accurate contact information can result in loss of coverage, she cautioned.

Medicaid recipients can contact JFS at 844-640-6446 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.