Welcome to a double-stuffed November & December edition of our newsletter, Policy Matters. In this edition we’re covering our efforts to combat EBT skimming scams, legislative victories as health, child care, and benefits bills are signed by the Governor, how we are pushing for equitable e-filing rules, growing efforts to combat child poverty, a new initiative pushing for health equity through language access, recognizing staff achievements, and a report out on our Celebration of Leadership event! You can also read an archived version of the email newsletter here.
Combatting “Skimming” of Benefits
Empire Justice staff, including Jessica Radbord and Cheryl Keshner, have been working to raise awareness of and find solutions to the issue of “skimming” public assistance benefits. Skimming is the practice in which thieves attach devices to credit card machines to steal information and access the accounts. While most credit cards now have chips that protect the card from skimming, EBT cards — through which people access benefits like SNAP (food stamps) — do not. Additionally, when people have their benefits stolen, the state does not refund them the way a bank refunds someone who held a credit or debit card. This is leaving some of the most low-income New Yorkers increasingly vulnerable, through no fault of their own and with little they can do to protect themselves.
The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) estimates that over 4,000 low-income people in New York State have been victims of EBT skimming so far – with more to come if there is not a solution in place soon. We have been working with staff at OTDA, Senator Schumer’s office, Senator Gillibrand’s office, and leaders in the NY state legislature to raise awareness of this issue and pursue solutions, such as reimbursing people who have had their benefits stolen, and transitioning to cards with chips. This is getting media coverage. Senator Gillibrand recently introduced a bill and quoted Empire Justice in the release. There is language addressing the issue of skimming SNAP benefits in the Congressional Omnibus Appropriations bill that is currently being discussed.
We are hopeful that SNAP benefits will be restored through the Omnibus bill, with the help of our advocacy, and will continue to work with OTDA and state legislators to ensure that cash assistance recipients are also reimbursed for their losses and afforded basic protections against theft.
Child Care Victory – Greater Access for Gig Workers, Homeless, and Other NYS Parents
We have several victories to share in this edition, as Governor Hochul is signing a number of important bills passed during the legislative session before 2022 ends. The first is the Child Care Decoupling Bill (A.7661/S6655-A), which amends Social Services Law 410(3)(b)(1) to provide that public welfare officials may not limit child care services based on the hours of work, training, or educational schedules of the parents, or the number of hours spent in work, training or educational activities.
This legislation expands access to child care by removing outdated restrictions so more low-income, homeless and other families on public assistance who are working part time, have rotating schedules, or who are participating in educational and vocational activities are able to access child care.
We are proud that our Senior Benefits Attorney and longtime child care advocate Susan Antos helped draft the original bill, based on issues faced by our clients. Thank you to Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi and Senator Jabari Brisport for their commitment to this bill, the Empire State Child Care Campaign for their advocacy on the bill, and Governor Hochul for signing the bill into law.
Health Justice Victory – Patient Medical Debt Protection Act Signed Into Law
A victory for all New Yorkers on November 23 as Governor Hochul signed into law the Patient Medical Debt Prevention Act (S.6522-A/A.7363-A), which will now prohibit health care providers from placing home liens on an individual’s primary residence or garnishing wages to collect on medical debt.
As we noted in our memo of support for the bill back in January, New Yorkers struggle with health care costs, even when they have insurance. Over 52,000 New York patients have been sued for medical debt by non-profit hospitals in the past five years, and eight percent of New Yorkers have delinquent medical debt that appears on their credit reports. Communities of color in New York are more than twice as likely to have medical debt than their white counterparts in counties like Westchester, Erie, Monroe, Onondaga and Albany. This carefully tailored law will still allow providers to collect medical debts by suing debtors and attaching other assets including bank accounts, second homes, cars, and boats – but will ensure that people will not have to fear being made homeless due to liens from medical providers, or being unable to pay their bills due to garnishments from medical providers.
We thank Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assemblymember Dick Gottfried in their leadership on this bill, our colleagues in the End Medical Debt Coalition for working hard to push it forward, and Governor Hochul for signing it into law.
Facility Fees Bill Goes to Governor
Another bill addressing medical debt has been sent to the Governor’s office for signature – the Facility Fees Reform bill (S.2521-C/A.2470-C). Increasingly, hospitals are acquiring medical practices and labs and then charging patients outlandish “facility fees” when they use these services – including for preventative care that is supposed to be free. Patients are shocked when they mysteriously find a $150-$250 facility charge on their bills months after seeing a medical provider. Insurance companies often do not pay facility fee charges – leaving patients stuck with them.
This legislation would inform patients of a facility fee in advance of being charged the fee by a medical practice affiliated with a hospital and would also prevent a fee from being charged for preventive services entirely.
Thank you again to Senator Gustavo Rivera and Assemblymember Dick Gottfried for their commitment to this bill. Governor Hochul has until December 23 to take action on this bill – we hope she will sign it into law.
Ability to Apply Electronically for Benefits Finally Going Statewide
Since 2018, the NYDocSubmit app for mobile devices has been available, allowing applicants
and recipients of Temporary Assistance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Home Energy Assistance Program, and Medicaid to submit documents online by uploading pictures of their paperwork – but only if their county has opted to offer the program. Unfortunately, many counties had not opted to offer the program, making it difficult to impossible for New Yorkers with mobility issues, lack of transportation, lack of access to child care, non-traditional work hours, or safety concerns (such as domestic violence) to apply for badly needed benefits.
We are very pleased that Governor Hochul has signed A.9118-A/A.6348-A into law, which will modernize the administration of public assistance across the state by requiring all social services districts to accept documents through electronic systems. It will not only provide for more equitable access to benefits statewide, but it is also likely to enhance efficiencies and reduce errors within local departments. Thank you to Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal and Senator Rachel May for championing this important legislation, and to Governor Hochul for signing it into law.
Pushing for Equitable E-filing Rules
The option to use electronic methods for filing important documents is important, but mandating electronic filing can also come with its own problems. On December 13 we submitted comments to the Office of Court Administration in preparation for their report to the Legislature, Governor, and the Chief Judge on mandatory e-filing in NYS courts. We underlined that it is critical that any expansion of e-filing maintain the exception for people who are pro se or unrepresented. Many low-income New Yorkers do not have internet access, or have limited, unreliable or intermittent access, and mandatory efiling would place an unfair burden on them.
We also recommended that the OCA develop a method to enable the immediate temporary sealing of e-filed documents, until those documents can be reviewed by a judge. Under current e-filing methods documents cannot be sealed until a court directs that a matter be sealed. This means that documents that are e-filed, as opposed to traditional filing methods, are at risk of being made public due to the existence of web scrapers and other programs that automatically pull publicly available information from websites and publish it on third party websites. Once this information has been captured and made public, it cannot be retroactively protected, even where a court subsequently orders sealing or redaction.
NYS Poverty Surpasses National Average for 8 Years in a Row
NYS Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released the first of a series of reports on New Yorkers in Need on December 8. This report, called A Look At Poverty Trends in New York State For The Last Decade, examined disparities in poverty rates between racial groups, urban and rural residents, and the impact of the social safety net and pandemic relief.
“Poverty is an urgent and solvable problem in a state as well-resourced as New York,” said Empire Justice Center President and CEO Kristin Brown in the press release announcing the report. “This new report documents that, particularly during the pandemic, poverty harmed marginalized communities the most. Empire Justice Center applauds Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Governor Kathy Hochul for shining a light on the inequitable impact of poverty, and for presenting solutions. We support the recommendations in this report and from the Child Poverty Reduction Advisory Council, particularly extending the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Empire State Child Tax Credit, and increasing the public assistance shelter allowance and basic needs grants. All together, these are concrete actionable steps that will move the needle on the goal of reducing poverty in New York state and we look forward to working toward their enactment in 2023.”
Call for Expansion of the Child and Earned Income Tax Credits
Empire Justice was among other advocates and community leaders in Rochester and New York City that gathered on December 10 to call on Congress to re-expand the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit.
In 2021 the United States was able to reduce child poverty nationwide by 40% due to a temporary expansion of the Child Tax Credit as part of the American Rescue Plan. But since that expansion ended, nearly 4 million children across the U.S. have fallen back into poverty.
“In our work we have supported almost 200,000 families in the Rochester area with their tax returns, we have seen the tremendous impact of the monthly Child Tax Credit payments and how effective they were in lifting children and families out of poverty,” said Yversha Roman, director of our CASH tax help program, to RochesterFirst.com. “We ask our Congressional leaders to put children first by making it easier for families to pay for clothing, gas, rent, and food by extending and expanding the child tax credit.”
At the state level, we applaud Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi, Senator Andrew Gournardes, and Senator Jeremy Cooney for unveiling plans for a state-level measure modeled on the federal credits called the NYS Working Families Tax Credit on December 8. This proposal would increase the maximum credit to $1,500 per child and provide, at minimum, a $500 credit per child regardless of income.
Working Toward Better Health Outcomes Through Language Access
Thanks to Excellus BlueCross BlueShield’s Health Equity Award, Empire Justice was able to invest in our Language Justice Program and partner with Common Ground Health to launch the 2022 My Health Story. This survey is a way for residents of the Rochester region to share info about their health and life circumstances that impact their well-being, focusing on under-resourced communities and individuals whose stories are often left out of public health initiatives, and Empire Justice will be focusing on working with the Monroe County Language Access Coalition to strengthen inclusion of community members who have limited English language communication and reading skills.
WROC Channel 8 in Rochester covered the launch of the program and interviewed our Language Justice Program Senior Manager Marlene Cortes. She said, “Usually the LEP community (which stands for Limited English Proficient community) and deaf and hard of hearing communities don’t partake in these surveys, because they’re not accessible to them.”
What Lawyers Can Do When Pet Abuse and DV Intersect
Our Regional Attorney Coordinator Amy Molloy Bogardus wrote an article for the New York Bar Association (NYSBA), What Lawyers Can Do When Pet Abuse and Domestic Violence Intersect. This article explains how violence against pets intersects with other manifestations of domestic violence, tells legal services providers how to identify the presence of animals within their client’s environment, and outlines legal tools that may help domestic violence survivors and their pets.
Recognizing Our Emerging Leaders
We’re happy to recognize five of our staff members who graduated from the United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes’ Emerging Leaders Development Programs!
- Amadimo Belleh, HOPP Technical Coordinator
- Katie Blum, Civil Rights Staff Attorney
- Keith Jensen, Public Benefits Paralegal
- Mercedece Love, Legal Assistant
- Sarah Thompson, CASH Office Manager
A Celebration of Leadership
Thank you to everyone who came to or otherwise supported this year’s Celebration of Leadership fundraiser in Albany, on November 17.
If you missed the event but would still like to support us, it’s not too late to donate in honor of our awardees!
Thank You For Reading
If you need civil legal help, you can find contact information for each of our offices here.
The Empire Justice Policy Team