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PA Department of Human Services frustrated with federal government, expect applications for benefits to rise

The PA DHS wants the stigma around benefits to drop, residents to know you can still apply for and receive benefits as physical offices are closed.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, so far the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has yet to see a dramatic rise in applications for state assistance benefits. However, the department expects to see a spike as new data comes in.

In a conference call on Friday, DHS Secretary Teresa Miller and Deputy Secretary for the Office of Income Maintenance--Lisa Watson--noted several challenges for the department.

Data only comes in for these applications monthly. Currently, the department has data for February and March. Once the April picture becomes clear, a rise in applications for benefits including Medicaid, SNAP, LIHEAP, TANIF and more.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's Department of Health, along with other states, have applied for waivers from the federal government and the Food and Nutrition Service to loosen requirements and restrictions for certain benefits during the COVID-19 crisis. Many of these applications have been denied.

"On Thursday April 10th, the Food and Nutrition Service issued a blanket denial of waivers that had been requested by multiple states including Pennsylvania" Dep. Sec. Watson said.

These denied waivers include college students not being able to be included in a family count for benefits, even though Pennsylvania colleges and universities are now mostly online and have sent students home for the academic year.

"SNAP households may be supporting more people without additional benefits to meet this need," Watson said.

Another waiver denial included a payment expansion. Human services departments in multiple states interpreted federal guidelines to suggest that SNAP families would be eligible to receive an extra payment for 14 days worth of food. However, Food and Nutrition Services denied that claim, stating that those receiving benefits, but who had claimed less than the maximum amount allotted for their families, could receive payment for the difference and claim the maximum amount going forward. However, that leaves a large percentage of Pennsylvania families left without extra assistance.

"Families that received max payment, about 40% of cases in PA, received no additional funding," Watson said.

Another denied waiver asked for assistance benefits to be treated like medical assistance benefits, meaning if for some reason a household's status changed and they were to become either ineligible for a certain benefit or needed to provide more proof of need, their coverage would not change during the COVID-19 emergency declaration. That was denied by the federal government, meaning new applications for assistance in a variety of programs could be either denied or altered.

However, the department says it is important to note that current assistance received prior to the pandemic will not be penalized if you cannot meet a certain requirement or payment.

"No sanctions associated with COVID-19 should take place," Sec. Miller said. 

County assistance offices remain closed during the pandemic. However, nearly 4,000 employees are still working via tele-working methods. Your claims will still be processed and you will still receive benefits.

For more information on benefits, you can visit www.compass.state.pa.us or call 1-866-550-4355.

You can also download the MyCompass PA app for Android and iPhone devices to track real-time data on your account.

If you have questions regarding your EBT card and benefits, you can call 1-888-328-7366

For more information on all types of benefits available and the requirements to meet them, you can visit the Department of Human Services website.

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