Increased COVID welfare payments finally set to end 3 years later

The pandemic ended in 2021 for all practical purposes, with most Minnesotans eager to get back to life as usual. So many citizens may be surprised to learn that some public assistance payments that were boosted significantly because of COVID have continued to flow to recipients long after the lockdowns.

Now that the federal government has finally announced the official end of the public health emergency in May, welfare assistance programs are set to revert to pre-COVID levels, according to the West Central Tribune.

When the coronavirus took over in early spring 2020 and people began losing their jobs, the state and federal governments began to temporarily rewrite the rules for many public assistance programs to make sure help was available to those who needed it.

Now, almost exactly three years later, the time has come to rewind the clock and bring those programs back under their 2019 rules and regulations. The federal Public Health Emergency is set to expire on May 11 and, with it, many waivers to public assistance programs such as Medical Assistance, MinnesotaCare and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“It has been a long time in coming,” said Jennie Lippert, Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services director. Lippert and two members of staff spoke Tuesday at the Kandiyohi County Board meeting to update commissioners on the beginning of the unwinding process.

County officials are warning recipients to get ready to make adjustments. But they fear many have become all too accustomed to the bigger government checks.

“These were always meant to be temporary benefits to help navigate the rising food costs and maintain healthy diets when people were being laid off, (facing) reduced employment hours and other obstacles,” said Dana Wenisch, financial assistance supervisor with Kandiyohi County HHS.

Those emergency benefits have officially expired, with the last payouts now going out. Starting with the April distribution, benefits will again be based on income and household size. Program recipients will also have to resume meeting certain work requirements…

“A lot of clients have become dependent” on the emergency SNAP benefits, Wenisch said.

The number of enrollees in on Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic. County officials were barred from checking up on recipients’ qualifications for getting assistance due to federal rules.

Since March 2020, county case workers have been unable to make any negative changes to a client’s eligibility for these medical programs, such as reducing benefits or removal from the program.

“Continuous coverage helped Minnesotans access care during the global pandemic and maintained high insurance rates in the state of Minnesota,” Lippert said. It also made the state eligible for billions of dollars in assistance through the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, the first major pandemic stimulus package.

During the last nearly three years, the number of people in the state enrolled in those health care coverage programs jumped 330,000 people. In Kandiyohi County, one of every three residents is enrolled in a coverage program.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. But those on the front lines are bracing for the unexpected and lots of headaches.

“It has been 29 months since we last did renewals,” said Deb Grunwald, financial assistance supervisor with county HHS. “At this point we’re not really sure what to anticipate.”

Clients who receive assistance for long-term care or skilled nursing facility placement will again have to follow asset limits. During the public health emergency, those limits were suspended, meaning there could be individuals facing displacement from their current residences if they are over the income or asset limits. “This is very, very, very complicated. There are a lot of moving targets,” Lippert said.