Kentucky Politics

Kentuckians who receive public benefits like food assistance or Medicaid will have to do more to stay in the programs, under a bill that passed out of the state legislature on Wednesday night.

House Bill 7 would require the state Health Cabinet to create a work requirement program for Medicaid beneficiaries to prove they are working, volunteering or doing community service in order to keep their health benefits. It would also create tougher penalties for people who improperly use food assistance, including escalating suspensions for repeated violations.

The measure was scaled back this week after pushback from advocates and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration, easing reporting requirements and softening language that demands cabinet employees root out suspected fraud.

Rep. David Meade, a Republican from Stanford and sponsor of the bill, said he’s trying to protect the integrity of the programs.

“We actually do have a major problem in this state, and that’s what we’re going to try to start taking care of, and there will be more we need to be doing down the line when we get more data,” Meade said.

The bill passed out of the House on Wednesday night with a 70-22 vote and out of the Senate earlier with a 24-12 vote.

Beshear will now consider signing or vetoing the legislation. If he vetoes it, Republican lawmakers can easily override him when they return for the final days of the legislative session on April 13 and 14.

The new version of the bill reduces how frequently beneficiaries have to report changes in address or income.

The bill also ends Kentucky’s pandemic-era “presumptive eligibility” program for Medicaid, which made it easier to enroll people in public health benefits if they suddenly need it.

Rep. Angie Hatton, a Democrat from Whitesburg, said she was relieved that the bill had been scaled back, but still questioned why supporters were pushing it.

“I just think it’s a matter of what keeps you up at night,” Hatton said. “For me, it doesn’t keep me up at night worrying there’s a tiny percentage of people who might get benefits who don’t deserve them. What keeps me up at night is worrying there might be people hungry who couldn’t jump through hoops and get their benefits.”

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said the new version of the bill will reduce unintended consequences, but he’s still wary.

“The General Assembly must deeply examine the impact of changes to the safety net – food benefits, health care, and other basic needs – will have on too many Kentuckians,” Brooks wrote in a statement. “Leadership must ask themselves, ‘Is this how we treat our most vulnerable among us?’”

There are more than 1.6 million Kentuckians on Medicaid, more than a third of the state’s population, and about 544,000 Kentuckians receive food assistance, also known as SNAP.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives.