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Changes coming to food stamps near you?

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Wisconsin's proposed drug tests for SNAP recipients would affect those in the employment and training program, and counties are wondering if their costs will still be covered

Counties in Wisconsin are in an anxious “wait and see” mode as Gov. Scott Walker (R) moves ahead with a plan to become the first state to drug test able-bodied adults applying for food stamps, formally known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The push from Walker comes as the Department of Agriculture (USDA) signals its approval to give states more flexibility on how they administer SNAP, in order to whittle down the program. SNAP served about 42 million people in 2017, at a cost of nearly $68 billion, nearly two-thirds of whom were under 18, older than 60 or disabled.

In Wisconsin, the proposed change would affect those taking part in SNAP’s employment and training program. Those who test positive for illegal drugs would be required to undergo treatment and if they can’t afford it, the state would pay or they would lose their benefits. Walker’s attempts to add drug testing in the past have failed because they were blocked by the USDA under the Obama administration.

Counties in Wisconsin are concerned about potential increases to their budgets, even though the state promises reimbursement. “We’re not exactly sure how this will work — we’re in a holding pattern at this point,” said Sarah Diedrick-Kasdorf, deputy director of government affairs at the Wisconsin Counties Association.

Diedrick-Kasdorf said she’s fielding questions from members, like “Who’s going to do this?” and “Who’s going to pay?”

The earliest the new plan in Wisconsin would be implemented would be in November and even that might not happen because the state has said it expects to be sued over the measure, Diedrick-Kasdorf said.

Some of the costs that counties are concerned about include the price tag for them to treat those who test positive for drugs. “Counties are saying that the Medicaid rate won’t cover our costs,” Diedrick-Kasdorf said. “As treatment providers, will counties be covered?”

The Wisconsin Legislature has 120 days to determine whether they approve of the new rule. Meanwhile, the association and counties are staying in close touch with the state department of human services.

What’s playing out in Wisconsin — local tweaking of the SNAP program — could soon be taking place elsewhere in the country.

Although SNAP is primarily a partnership between the federal government and states, there are 10 states that share SNAP administration with county agencies. In addition to Wisconsin, they are California, Colorado, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio and Virginia. Despite being county-administered in only 20 percent of the country’s states, 31 percent of all SNAP recipients reside in those states, and counties often contribute significant local funds to administrative and supplemental costs of running the programs.

The changes in Wisconsin may be just what the Trump administration is looking for.

“As a former governor, I know firsthand how important it is for states to be given flexibility to achieve the desired goal of self-sufficiency for people,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a Press Club address. “We want to provide the nutrition people need, but we also want to help them transition from government programs, back to work and into lives of independence.”

The administrator of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) said the agency is looking for a new focus on self-sufficiency, integrity and customer service for the program and is signaling that it wants to see changes made to the program.

To encourage changes to the program, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service is offering greater local control to states and looking for states to get creative.

Meanwhile in Congress, bills have been introduced to put new work requirements on food stamp recipients. Republicans will decide after an annual retreat, held Jan. 31, whether work requirements  will become a priority in 2018.

But some states aren’t waiting for federal action on curbing the program. Like Wisconsin, some states are taking action now.

In Ohio, a bill recently passed in the Legislature that would require food stamp recipients to carry a color photo of the named recipient or a member of their household. The bill is still under review.

In Michigan, the state department of health and human services notified Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Clinton, Eaton, Grand Traverse, Ingham, Ionia, Kalamazoo and Livingston counties that able-bodied adults ages 18-49 without dependents will be required to meet work requirements that have been waived for more than a decade to continue receiving food assistance benefits.

The state department of health and human services says approximately 16,000 could be affected by the change, which went into effect Jan. 1.

In Georgia, where Perdue previously served as governor, two dozen counties now limit unemployed adults ages 18-49 without dependents or disabilities to three months of food stamps in a three-year period. They can continue the program if they find a job or are enrolled in a job training or community service program for at least 20 hours a week. The plan is to include all 159 counties in Georgia by 2019.

Some states, including California, which receives $7.5 billion a year in SNAP benefits or 11 percent of total national spending for the program, have remained exempt from the policy requiring able-bodied SNAP recipients to work during times of enduring unemployment.

When California’s exemption waiver runs out Aug. 31, it’s unclear whether the state will impose the work requirement or any other federal changes for SNAP recipients, Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California, told the Sacramento Bee earlier this year.

“California does tend to be a state that tries to protect its recipients from bad things that happen federally,” she said. “Are we going to make those changes? Or are we going to say no, and find a way to match those who would lose federal eligibility? Do we take steps to protect them at 100 percent state costs?”

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