Food stamps tied to home heating credit cause confusion

Michael Walton
Traverse City Record-Eagle

Traverse City — Linda Hazimi prepared for a moment of truth as her wheelchair rolled toward the grocery store checkout lane.

A store clerk scanned Hazimi’s food stamps card and helped her punch in her PIN. Then Hazimi breathed a sigh of relief when “approved” flashed across the display.

Hazimi only recently returned to the supermarket with confidence that her card contained enough food aid money to feed her each month. Hazimi said she shopped with drastically reduced food stamp balances for months after her benefits were cut with little explanation.

The cuts came when she was already stressed by problems with Social Security, which makes up the major portion of her $740 fixed monthly income. And the wheelchair she has used since peripheral artery disease took her legs was broken.

“The food cuts hit me psychologically very hard because I’d been feeling beat up,” she said. “I felt like a rat in a cage, because I’m already limited in where I can go and what I can do.”

Hazimi wasn’t alone when she learned about her food stamp reduction. Word about such cuts spread quickly through Traverse City’s Riverview Terrace public housing residents, where many elderly and disabled men and women rely on food stamps.

Many residents who relied heavily on the monthly budget supplement — sometimes as much as $150 — suddenly saw their allotment plummet to as little as $16.

“All of a sudden you were receiving less than you were before, and you found it very difficult to figure out exactly what was going on once you started asking questions,” resident Priscilla Townsend said.

No one at Riverview Terrace realized it at first, but the reductions resulted from a caveat in the 2014 Farm Bill that aimed to curb costs tied to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — the formal name for the federal food stamps program.

Before the Farm Bill passed, several states like Michigan followed a practice known as “heat and eat,” which allowed people who received as little as $1 in home heating assistance annually to qualify for increased SNAP benefits.

The Farm Bill raised that bar and required food stamp recipients to receive at least $20 in heating assistance to qualify for increased food stamp benefits.

Before the Farm Bill changes, Michigan and other states automatically doled out $1 in heating assistance to all food stamp recipients, regardless of whether they asked for it. Michigan stopped paying those $1 credits after the new $20 limit was set.

But Townsend said the changes were irrelevant to most Riverview Terrace residents who saw their food stamps cut. She said they’ve long qualified for at least $20 in heating assistance, but many just never realized that and never collected the assistance because utility costs are wrapped into their rent.

And no one from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that administers SNAP benefits in the state, explained to them that they stood to lose food stamps if they did not apply for and receive adequate heating credits, she said.

Roughly 30 men and women lost more than $100 a month in assistance they needed as a result. Towsend said the cuts were “devastating” for her neighbors, and said they led some to become ill, even hospitalized because they weren’t getting enough to eat.

“You can’t tell me that (DHHS) didn’t owe it to their clients to know about the heating credit form and help them fill it out in a timely manner,” she said.

Bob Wheaton, a DHHS spokesman, said in written statements and interviews that DHHS staffers did not err when some Riverview Terrace residents lost large chunks of their monthly food stamp allocations.

Michigan’s home heating credit program is a Department of Treasury program, so DHHS caseworkers are not required to suggest to clients that they apply for the assistance, although some caseworkers may do so anyway, he said.

“There is an expectation that caseworkers tell their clients what type of public assistance is available to them,” Wheaton said. “But they’re not specifically required to inform clients about the home heating credit.”

Wheaton added that applications for public assistance explain to clients that they should indicate whether they receive a home heating credit, and that home heating credits count as reportable income deductions when people apply for food assistance.

He also said in a written statement that clients affected by food assistance changes following the 2014 Farm Bill were sent a “Verification Check List and given time to supply verification of their heating obligations.”

“They also would have received a subsequent form informing them if there was a change to their benefits and the reason why,” he said in the written statement.

Roughly 1.5 million Michiganders received SNAP benefits as of September 2015, a slight dip from the 1.6 million who used the program statewide in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But eight Riverview Terrace residents interviewed for this story said they had no idea what was behind the food stamps reductions they were tagged with one-by-one starting about a year ago.

“I never got a paper saying they were going to cut me or anything,” Jane Zimmerman, 76, said. “They just did it.”

They also reported receiving only vague, unclear explanations about what was going on when they tried to inquire about the changes with local DHHS officials and caseworkers.

Christy Crawford, a cancer survivor who endured the surgical removal of two brain tumors since she was a child, said one caseworker told her something about heating assistance and the 2014 Farm Bill. But Crawford said the explanation didn’t make sense to her, and she didn’t think to question it further.

“Government is aggravating,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me why heating was connected to the Farm Bill, and why heating was connected with food.”

Crawford lives on a fixed income, as do many of her neighbors who collect food stamps. The cuts left her and others making tough choices about how to spend that income. Such choices often came down to whether they’d buy food, pay bills or purchase medication.

Rhonda Ramsey, 61, said she relies on food stamps to purchase orange juice she needs to drink when she takes her medications. When Ramsey’s benefits were cut to $16 per month she turned to local pantries for assistance, but she still struggled to afford juice.

“You just had to carry on,” she said. “I didn’t really think to question (DHHS) about it. I assumed they knew what they were doing.”

Norma Loper, 71, said she called her caseworker to ask about her own reduction and was told only that it related to the fact that her heating was paid as part of her rent. Loper said the caseworker told her there was “absolutely nothing” she could do about it.

“That was all she said,” Loper said. “She didn’t give me any advice on what I could do for food.”

Wheaton said local DHHS officials would not comment for this story.

Townsend, 78, said the response Loper received was untrue. Townsend also lives at Riverview Terrace and receives food stamps, but unlike her neighbors, her benefits never were cut.

That discrepancy led her to jump online and start researching the issue.

Townsend’s searches suggested her neighbors lost most of their food stamps because of nationwide changes made in the Farm Bill and because they never applied for the home heating credit. Townsend has requested and received more than $20 in heating assistance every year, which explains why her allocation continued unchanged.

Starting this fall, Townsend said she helped 31 Riverview Terrace residents apply for and receive the heating credits they needed to restore their food stamp benefits.

She called getting to the bottom of her neighbors’ issues a “very, very difficult process.”

Townsend said she doesn’t blame local DHHS workers for the problems the changes caused her neighbors. She believes the issues largely stemmed from poor communication between federal, state and local officials.

“My question is, why?” she said.

State Rep. Larry Inman, R-Traverse City, has the same question and said there’s “no excuse” for Riverview Terrace residents to lose benefits they qualified for all along.

“I want an explanation about why this didn’t get noticed, and I want some assurances that this doesn’t happen again,” Inman said.

Inman added he plans to meet with DHHS officials to learn more about whether federal officials notified state officials about the Farm Bill changes, and whether state officials adequately passed on word of the changes to benefit recipients. He also wants to know how many people statewide might be losing benefits they qualified for all along.

“And I want to make sure we find out that this won’t happen again,” he said.

Those questions all struck a chord with Townsend, who now plans to file appeals with DHHS for the people she helped in an effort to get compensation to them for the assistance she believes they never should have lost in the first place.

“The state did not communicate this properly,” she said. “The Farm Bill did not explain this properly. Nobody knew. The only thing the politicians knew is that they were saving money.”