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DC Council Helps Those The Feds Left Out

The pandemic continues to devastate District residents and the economy, with tens of thousands of workers laid off, the pandemic limiting economic activity, and nearly 15,000 residents infected with the virus. One in four adults with children in DC say they can’t afford enough food for their kids, and one in 10 adults in rental housing is behind on rent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ analysis of new Census data. This raises the worry that evictions will spike once the local eviction moratorium is lifted after the public health emergency ends – and drives home that DC residents, and residents across the country, need money in their pockets. Access to health insurance and healthcare has never been more important.

Federal relief measures have helped some, but there are significant gaps, such as leaving many immigrant households without unemployment benefits, health insurance, stimulus checks or other forms of assistance. The DC Council took some steps to address these gaps in the fiscal year 2021 budget. For example, it allocated $9 million for cash assistance to excluded workers, including undocumented workers and day laborers. Combined with a $5 million investment from Events DC (the semi-public company that owns and manages the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, RFK Stadium and Nationals Park), this brings the total investment to $14 million. While a good start, this is less than half of the approximately $30 million needed to provide a modest $1,000 in cash assistance for all excluded workers. Unfortunately, it is unclear at this time if new proposed legislative language will allow the funding to reach all excluded workers, as was intended during budget negotiations.

To address child hunger, the administration participated in the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program last year and has reapplied for September 2020. This program provides an estimated $114 per child to any family whose children participated in the free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs at school. This is one of the few federal programs that does not limit access based on immigration status, so families who are undocumented can benefit. Approximately 68,000 children qualified last year.

The DC Council took a critical step in improving the DC Healthcare Alliance, a locally funded program for immigrants. Until September, the alliance shut out thousands of eligible residents with onerous requirements, forcing recipients to line up at service centers twice a year, while their US-citizen neighbors can apply for Medicaid annually through an online portal. This made it hard for eligible residents to maintain health coverage and access crucial services like check-ups and immunizations.

The DC Council recognized that the six-month re-enrollment requirement has been an enormous obstacle for eligible residents. Workers with limited access to child care and full-time work find it difficult to complete the frequent-interview requirement. Beyond that, many families are forced to make multiple trips because of a lack of language assistance, long lines and delays in staff processing. Often, they must go several times to finish re-enrollment. The re-enrollment requirement and other barriers are particularly painful for immigrant residents, who are grappling with hostile federal policies that make accessing public benefits a fearful, intimidating process.

Only 50% of participants renew their eligibility, according to data from the District’s Department of Health Care Finance. During the first year of the policy, from October 2011 to October 2012, the number of DC residents in the DC Healthcare Alliance dropped by one-third, from 24,000 to 16,000 (see figure). Enrollment has fluctuated modestly since then but currently stands around 16,000, despite continued growth in the District’s population.

The DC Council has acted to ease this burden by allowing alliance beneficiaries to do their six-month recertification by phone. While this does not put recipients on par with other health insurance recipients, it should ease their burden and help them retain insurance coverage.

The District strives to be a welcoming city for immigrants, but it is difficult to encourage use of programs, like the alliance, when policymakers impose unnecessary barriers. This shows that we’re falling short of welcoming our immigrant neighbors.

While the DC Council has taken important steps to help those excluded from federal assistance, policymakers can do more. The mayor and the council should work together to remove the six-month recertification requirement in the FY 2022 budget and remove other obstacles that keep residents from participating. And the council should ensure that any new legislative language will allow the cash assistance funding to reach all excluded workers, as originally intended.

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