In a conference call with media Wednesday, state Secretary of Human Services Theresa Miller discussed recent trends in the public assistance system and called for legislators to keep the disaster declarations in place.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Human Services served 2.8 million Pennsylvanians through its programs.
These programs include Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
“These are things we all need to live, and that's what public assistance is about,” Miller said.
Since February, enrollment in Medicaid has increased by 118,000 people to a total of about 2.94 million as of May. Enrollment in SNAP increased by about 190,000 people since February for a total of about 1.9 million in May.
Enrollment in the Children's Health Insurance Program saw a decline from more than 200,000 in May to 189,727 in June.
“This drop is primarily due to families moving from CHIP onto Medicaid due to changes in income,” Miller said.
Miller said her department also saw an unusual trend in the number of applications, which has declined while enrollment has increased. She said her department has been looking into this trend, but she believes it could be attributed to the flexibility afforded by the federal and state emergency declarations.
“It's not what we would have expected to see, and we are starting to piece together why this may be the case,” Miller said.
Under the disaster declarations, disenrollment was suspended in most cases, which means more people are staying in the programs and not having to reapply.
“Before COVID-19, if people were removed from the program for failing to recertify, they'd often reapply quickly,” Miller said. “Because we're not removing people for that reason during this crisis, we're not seeing that churn in applications.”
Miller said halting disenrollment is just one flexibility that has been used to help people keep food on their tables. She said the disaster declarations have also allowed for an additional $100 million per month in SNAP benefits.
Miller said these flexibilities end when either the state or federal disaster declaring ends because both have to be in place.
Pennsylvania is the site of a legal battle between Gov. Tom Wolf and state legislators over the state's disaster declaration. Earlier this month, both chambers approved a resolution to end the state's disaster declaration.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to make a ruling on the case.
Miller said other states are showing a surge in public assistance numbers that Pennsylvania has not yet seen. She said maintaining flexibilities and potentially expanding to allow the extension of flexibilities for 90 days — instead of 30-day periods — would make the department's job easier for it to plan and coordinate the programs.
“I'm afraid they're going to do away with the flexibilities and bring back these draconian rules that keep people from putting food on their tables,” Miller said. “We need to start as a country thinking about this program fundamentally different.”