Illinois changes Medicaid, food stamps and unemployment policies in response to COVID-19

Advocates praise Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s new measures meant to help low-income communities survive the crisis, but say much more is needed in a variety of areas.

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Photo by April Alonso

Days after poverty advocates gave Gov. J.B. Pritzker a long list of recommendations to improve access to health care, income supports and housing during the coronavirus crisis, state government has moved on a number of fronts.

Given the complexity of the situation, “we’re feeling cautiously optimistic,” said Jeremy Rosen, director of economic justice at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. “A lot has been done in just a few days, though obviously much more is needed.”

The Shriver Center’s concern is that “low-income people and communities of color are more likely to be directly impacted and less likely to receive the services and resources they need to survive the disaster and recover after it’s over,” Rosen said. “We worry that beyond the epidemic’s direct toll, its long-term effects could exacerbate the problem of income inequality.”

That is, the poor will end up poorer and those struggling to get a foothold in the middle class could be thrown into poverty.

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Obviously, the most immediate issue is access to healthcare — particularly to testing and treatment for COVID-19. Pritzker issued a guidance to all Medicaid providers over a week ago stating that testing and treatment for the virus will be covered by Medicaid for individuals who are currently uninsured as well as those enrolled in Medicaid, said Stephanie Altman, director of healthcare justice at the Shriver Center, and new federal legislation has covered the same ground. 

“We don’t want a situation where people are afraid to access healthcare because they’re undocumented or they lack good insurance coverage and are worried about how to pay for things,” Rosen said.

The Trump administration has said its new rule penalizing people seeking green cards or visas for using public benefits programs won’t be applied to COVID-19 related assistance during the emergency, but immigrants in those categories remain wary, said Fred Tsao of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. He added the federal rule doesn’t prevent people from accessing services in the Cook County health system, which is open to all county residents.

Most major insurers have waived cost-sharing for testing for insured patients, and the Shriver Center has called on Pritzker to order all Illinois insurers to cover both testing and treatment without cost-sharing, Altman said.

The state has not yet acted on a recommendation that pending Medicaid applications be immediately approved, Altman said, but people waiting for approval can apply for a temporary medical card — if they know to ask for it. That can be done at the Illinois Department of Human Services website or by email or phone. IDHS could apply for a federal waiver to allow for expedited approval of temporary medical cards, she said.

The state has also suspended Medicaid terminations, following guidance in new federal legislation, Altman said. The Shriver Center has also called on the state to mandate coverage of 90-day supplies of prescriptions for maintenance medications under all state-regulated private insurance plans and Medicaid. 

Another crucial issue is income replacement, and here too, progress is being made, though much more is needed, Rosen said. Pritzker has expanded the grounds for claiming unemployment insurance benefits to include a range of reasons related to the epidemic, including self-quarantining and caring for children out of school. He’s also suspended the requirement that recipients conduct work searches. 

A huge increase in applications for unemployment insurance has overwhelmed the website and phone lines of the Illinois Department of Employment Security, leading to widespread frustration on the part of laid-off workers, but Pritzker said Tuesday that a new software system is expected to solve at least some of those problems.

The existing income-support system is based on traditional employment patterns. Rosen said he’s hopeful that federal legislation now being considered will expand unemployment compensation coverage to include people who wouldn’t have qualified previously, including gig workers and temporary workers. He also expects forthcoming federal support for small businesses to require that as much as half of grants and loans be used to pay workers. In any case, direct cash assistance from the federal government will be crucial for this segment of non-traditional workforce.

The state has expedited applications and dropped work requirements for food stamps, Rosen said. And following a recommendation by Pritzker, the Illinois Commerce Commission has ordered a moratorium on utility shutoffs, said David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board.

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The Shriver Center has joined the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice and other groups in calling on the Illinois Supreme Court to issue a statewide emergency order instituting a moratorium on all rental housing evictions, property tax sales, and mortgage foreclosures. In Cook County, Chief Circuit Court Judge Timothy Evans has already suspended evictions, at least until the middle of next month.

The group has also called on the Illinois Housing Development Authority — and, in a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the Chicago Housing Authority — to identify available units or housing vouchers for homeless individuals and to suspend notices of termination and ease restrictions on housing authority residents. Chicago should also identify local funding for emergency rental assistance for undocumented households, according to the group. And the state needs to increase funding for its homeless prevention program, which was already running short.

The Chicago Housing Initiative, a coalition of community organizations, noted that CHA has reported “close to 2,000 long-term vacant public housing units, ready and available for occupancy across the CHA’s public housing portfolio,” and compares this to an estimate by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless that at least 2,800 units of isolation housing are needed for people living on the streets and in crowded shelters. “The 2,000 vacant CHA apartments must be one of our city’s first lines of emergency response,” CHI argues. 

Other recommendations from the Shriver Center include measures to deconcentrate jails and prisons, establish emergency plans for child protection agencies, and provide for child care assistance for families when community centers are closed.

Rosen notes that many of these recommendations have significant fiscal implications and says that federal relief for state and local budgets is going to be crucial. There will be a lot of bills to pay in the coming months and years. But right now, workers, families, and communities are in dire need.