Lawmakers considering proposals to create a statewide database for General Assistance

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May 11—Maine lawmakers are considering two proposals that would create a statewide database for tracking information on the General Assistance program.

The idea is included in both L.D. 1426 and L.D. 1732 as part of larger proposals to reform the program, which has seen an increased demand in the last few years to help meet basic needs such as food, housing and medical care for those who would otherwise be without.

"I've had a lot of communication with clerks, community action programs and town leaders, and it was clear to me the system is difficult for people to access and for people to understand," said Rep. Kristi Mathieson, D-Kittery, the sponsor of L.D. 1426. "I think the state really needs to step in and help out with clarifying how General Assistance is distributed."

The proposals come as the city of Sanford was overwhelmed this week with dozens of asylum seekers searching for assistance, some of whom were arriving from other communities where they had already signed up for benefits. The situation frustrated officials trying to cross-check General Assistance lists from other communities to make sure no one was receiving double benefits.

Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, the sponsor of L.D. 1732, said a state database would allow municipalities to determine eligibility more quickly and grant assistance as soon as possible. "It is an important tool that will help vulnerable Mainers and relieve some of the administrative burdens currently placed on municipalities in the process of determining eligibility," Meyer said in an email.

Jackie Farwell, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency has been communicating with officials in Sanford and they are not aware of any concerns about intentional fraud in the city's General Assistance program. But she said the department is aware that improvements to the program are needed.

"The General Assistance program is a critical support, but unsustainable for municipalities and the state as it is currently structured," Farwell said. She said Gov. Janet Mills has included one-time funding in her latest budget proposal to help offset the rising costs.

The money only covers fiscal year 2024 because the department wants time to assess trends before developing long-term reforms, Farwell said in an email.

Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, the Senate chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Health and Human Services, said the two proposals are part of larger discussions.

"I think we need to talk about a whole bunch of reforms or modernizing of the system, and part of that would be to have a database to make sure people aren't abusing the system," Baldacci said. "I would be OK with it, but it also depends on the cost and how it would be implemented."

General Assistance is a state program administered by municipalities and the tribes, which provide vouchers to applicants and are reimbursed for 70% of their costs by the state.

In the city of Portland, people in need of assistance go through an assessment with a financial eligibility specialist, who conducts a one-on-one interview and collects their information, including income verification and expenses. Aaron Geyer, director of social services in Portland, said creating a statewide database would help officials determine whether people also have applied for assistance in other communities.

Right now, he said officials must call other communities if they suspect someone might also have applied for or received assistance elsewhere, though he said he didn't think it would necessarily be easy for someone to scam the system.

"Each time an applicant is looking for assistance they have to do a face-to-face interview, and that interview is designed to ask questions and figure out the need," Geyer said. "When you look at income and need and do the math, I think most of the interviews would be able to weed that out, but I do think there's potentially room for it."

INCREASING REIMBURSEMENTS ALSO PROPOSED

At a public hearing on several General Assistance-related bills last week, much of the discussion focused on increasing the reimbursement to communities to 90%, which both L.D. 1426 and L.D. 1732 would do.

Mathieson's bill also would require the state to pay for costs associated with administering the program and have the state set up a 24-hour hotline to provide consistent advice to GA administrators.

Meyer's bill also requires some additional assistance from the state, including additional state reimbursement for emergency General Assistance and administrative expenses, and would require the state to provide 24-hour technical assistance.

The Department of Health and Human Services currently collects GA data on application counts, the number of people getting benefits and expenses broken down by service type like housing, heating, food and medical care, Farwell said.

"The department supports the use of technology to modernize and improve the GA program and is currently exploring solutions, including development and implementation of a statewide database that municipalities administering the program could access," she said.

"This work will require significant time and investment, and as such is part of the department's broader initiative to reform GA to better serve the people of Maine."