DES MOINES — Iowa senators voted 30-18 on Tuesday to approve legislation directing the state Department of Human Services to upgrade its system of verifying eligibility for public assistance programs.
Senate File 389, which passed on a party-line vote, proposes the state agency buy the system or enlist a private vendor to verify assets, identity and other eligibility requirements for hundreds of thousands of Iowans participating public assistance programs involving federal and state benefits no later than July 1, 2022.
“I’ve worked this around and I believe it a pretty solid finished product,” said Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, who told his Senate colleagues that modernizing the current process with technology could do the work faster and at a fraction of the cost with higher accuracy.
He said the purpose of the requiring Iowans who are receiving public assistance benefits to undergo more rigorous eligibility verification reviews to bolster program efficiency and weed out fraud and abuse was not to eliminate eligibility for people but to make sure that people who are applying are eligible.
Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, argued unsuccessfully that DHS officials already are working with a private company on a free one-year trial pilot project to verify data, and that a separate federal model is being prepared for states that should be available this spring requiring a data-sharing agreement but no purchase cost to the state.
“We’re duplicating. We’re jumping through hoops we don’t need to,” said Mathis, who called it pricey, pointless and overly complex.
Other Democrats argued the change would create problems at a time when more Iowans are in need of food and other assistance due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think the bill is just a ‘we think we know better,’ ” added Mathis. “It’s ill-timed and costly to Iowans figuratively and literally.”
During the subcommittee process, DHS officials said the agency is “meaningfully engaged in these activities already” to ensure that only eligible Iowans receive the correct amount of assistance as efficiently as possible.
Also, a new federal model is being prepared for states that should be available this spring that will require a data-sharing agreement but will not have to be purchased by Iowa. With the federally declared COVID-19 health emergency in effect for 2021, Iowa would not be allowed to disenroll Medicaid or other recipients having accepted federal funding via various CARES Act provisions.
“If you’re going to be fiscally responsible, this is not the bill to vote for,” said Sen. Amanda Ragan, D-Mason City. “I’m amazed we’re willing to support this during the pandemic. This is not good legislation, and I urge you to vote against it.”
Schultz said Senate File 389, which now goes to the Iowa House for consideration, is a response to a trend of states moving away from broad-based categorical eligibility and moving toward an asset test. Iowa could set its own limits that cannot be more strict the federal government, he noted.
He expected the approach would improve program oversight while saving taxpayer money, but he noted eligibility ultimately would be decided by DHS officials, not the vendor, so there would be no incentive to reduce public aid participation.
In other action
Also Tuesday, senators — on a 30-18 party-line vote — approved legislation designed to provide liability protections for agritourism businesses from situations Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, said can occur “from the inherent risk of farming, such as the behavior of farm animals or the operation of equipment used on a farm.”
Zumbach said Senate File 356 requires agritourism businesses to post a written notice in a conspicuous location detailing the inherent risk of farming and alerting visitors that under the proposed Iowa law “you are assuming liability for any hazard that you may encounter” as it relates to farm animals, equipment operations or potential wrongful acts of another visitor.
Liability protections would not apply in cases where an injury was caused by “an action or inaction of the farmer that was illegal, nefarious, intentional, reckless, or grossly negligent,” Zumbach said, or if a farmer intoxicated or failed to notify the tourist of a dangerous condition on the farm.
Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, said he supported the spirit of the bill in encouraging farm tourism and education, but he expressed concerns over comparative fault provisions in the bill that if a visitor is 1 percent or more at fault, the person would be “prohibited from recovering damages for everything up to gross negligence.”
“I appreciate the spirit of this legislation,” Boulton said, “but I do think it misses the mark and can lead to a very serious unintended consequence.”
Zumbach said the protections are the same the Legislature previously put in place for fairs in Iowa, adding “we’ve had zero trouble in that arena and I think we are going to have zero trouble in this area.”
The bill now goes to the Iowa House for consideration.