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Montana Organizing Project

Montana Grassroots Ambassador Jeannie Brown LTE on the SAVE Benefits Act

Montana Grassroots Ambassador Jeannie Brown LTE on the SAVE Benefits Act

From the Bozeman Chronicle

Congress should take care of our seniors

By Virjeana (Jeannie) Brown

In 2016, those who receive Social Security, SSI and Disability benefits will not be receiving a COLA. There was no change in the CPI-W (Consumer Price Index for Wage Earners) used to calculate COLA. This is a good case for using the CPI-E (Consumer Price Index for the Elderly), which more accurately reflects the increases to services/items that affect the population receiving these benefits. I know people whose Medicare premiums and co-pays are going up in 2016 as well as their rent.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has introduced S.2251, the Seniors and Veterans Emergency Benefits Act (SAVE). This is a one-time bill that would issue payment of $581 to people receiving Social Security and Disability. This would be paid for by closing a loop-hole that allows CEO’s to not pay taxes on their bonus. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL-8) has introduced the companion bill, H.R.4144 in the House.

I am asking that everyone please take the time to call Sen. Tester (202) 224-2644) and Sen. Daines (202) 224-2651 and ask them to co-sponsor S.2251 introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Please call Rep. Zinke (202) 225-3211 and ask him to co-sponsor H.R.4144.

Please share with you family and friends living in other states and ask them to contact their senators and congressmen to co-sponsor these very important bills.

Virjeana (Jeannie) Brown

Belgrade

Washington and Montana Ambassadors at August training and rally

Washington and Montana Ambassadors at August training and rally

Thanks to Washington CAN! member and Grassroots Ambassador Maureen Caputo for putting this together:

Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid Rally in Seattle

Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid Rally in Seattle

reposted from Washington CAN!

After months of planning, August 8 arrived with the promise of a celebration to mark two great anniversaries in our nation.

Medicare has been providing coverage for the elderly and disabled for 50 years. Social Security, which turns 80 on August 14, secures the promise of retirement for Americans who are not able to put away money in their working years.

We heard from a bevy of engaging speakers who rallied in defense of these programs which face acute crisis. Talk of fiscal cliffs, trust fund shortfalls and the constant threat of cutting benefits are stressful scenarios for beneficiaries. These programs are vital to the survival and quality of life of our nation’s low-income population. Rally speakers called to protect and expand these measures which have protected millions from living in poverty for decades.

Although the rally did not end as planned, its message was delivered and received well.

We thank all of the speakers and performers.

We heard another, unexpected message at the rally, that of the Black Lives Matter movement. Washington CAN! has been and will continue to support the rallying cry for ALL Black lives striving for liberation. Although the interruption by two Black Lives Matter protesters was unexpected, we embrace the teaching moment it has created.

Thanks to Garet Munger, Clay Showalter and Randall Smith for taking pictures

 

Another letter from Grassroots Ambassador Jeannie Brown on SSDI

Another letter from Grassroots Ambassador Jeannie Brown on SSDI

From the Billings Gazette

Congress must not fail disabled Montanans

April 13, 2015 3:00 pm

When Congress started the 114th session, within the first 24 hours, a rule was passed that would not allow for the reallocation of the Social Security Disability Insurance and Social Security Old Age Trust accounts, although that has been done 11 times since 1950. Currently, 12.4 percent (6.2 percent employer, 6.2 percent employee) of a person’s wages go into FICA. Of this, 1.8 percent goes into the Disability Insurance Trust Fund and the remainder goes into the Old Age Trust Fund.

Reallocation means that for a period of two years, 2.8 percent would go into the Disability Insurance Trust. After two years, it reverts back to 1.8 percent. This would balance both funds and they would be able to make full payments through 2033. If this reallocation does not happen, at the end of 2016, every single person who receives SSD-I will take a 20 percent cut in their payment.

This is harmful to the most vulnerable in our state. These payments are modest and very difficult to get. Typically, it takes three tries to be accepted. I know two individuals who are on SSD-I who receive help from their parents because they cannot afford to pay for essentials. I’m sure there are more people in this situation. Imagine decreasing already stressed budgets by 20 percent. How many will be forced to decrease their prescription drugs, re-use disposable medical equipment and become susceptible to additional illness or disability.

Please contact your congressmen and ask them to change this. Allow the reallocation so that people living in poverty won’t be hurt even more.

I thank Sen. Jon Tester for his recent votes to expand Social Security, refuse cuts to Social Security and allow for legally married same-sex couples to be afforded equal access to Social Security benefits. Not a single Republican voted yes on any of these amendments.

Virjeana (Jeannie) Brown

Belgrade

Social Security changes will hurt state

Social Security changes will hurt state

From Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Tuesday, April 7, 2015

I have been following Montana’s legislation closely this year. I find the public’s testimony has been falling on deaf ears and good bills are dying in committee with no chance for debate. So, let’s look at the federal level.

When Congress started the 114th session, a rule was passed that would not allow for the reallocation between the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSD-I) and Social Security Old Age Trust accounts. This has been done eleven times since 1950 without fanfare. Currently, 12.4 percent (6.2 percent employer, 6.2 percent employee) of a person’s wages go into FICA. Of this 1.8 percent goes into the SSD-I Fund and 10.6 percent into the Old Age Trust Fund. Reallocation means for a period of two years, 2.8 percent would go into the SSD-I Trust. After two years, it reverts back to 1.8 percent. This would balance both funds with full payments made through 2033. If this reallocation does not happen, at the end of 2016, every recipient of SSD-I will take a 20 percent cut in their payment.

This is harmful to the vulnerable in our state. These payments are modest and very difficult to get. I know two individuals receiving SSD-I who get help from their parents because they cannot afford the essentials. I’m sure there are more people in this situation. Many will be forced to decrease their prescription medications, re-use disposable medical equipment and become susceptible to additional illness or disability.

Please contact your congressmen and ask them to change this.

I want to thank Sen. Tester for his recent votes to expand Social Security, refuse cuts to Social Security and allow for legally married same-sex couples to be afforded equal access to those benefits. I would also like to point out that not a single Republican voted yes on these amendments.

Virjeana (Jeannie) Brown

Belgrade

COLUMN: Social Security must change

COLUMN: Social Security must change

From Belgrade News
Friday, April 3, 2015

When I was campaigning in House District 67 this past year, I had one woman tell me she would never vote for a Democrat because she didn’t want the government telling her what to do. I felt this woman had already judged me because I was running as a Democrat. It is really sad that “politics” are becoming so polarized that civilized individuals of differing views cannot sit respectfully in a normal conversation and find issues of mutual interest and concern.

I grew up in a strong Republican household. I’m talking about Republicans who cared about conservation and knew that you had to take care of the land so that it would take care of you. This household valued water, because the livestock needed clean water free from contaminants to thrive. So you see, this person really did not take a chance to get to know me. Perhaps if Had I not been judged so harshly, we could have had a conversation.

Government services provide for libraries, police, fire departments, public infrastructure, and are concerned with public health. Governments step in when Corporations hurt consumers (think auto recalls). Of course, governments do many other things, but these are the basics that impact nearly everyone. These services need to be paid for by everyone. The State of Montana gives the gas and oil industry an 18 month tax holiday on wells, but expect the middle and lower class taxpayers to shoulder more of the responsibility. This is the general theme playing out on the federal level as well.

When Congress started the 114th session, within the first 24 hours, a rule was passed that would not allow for the reallocation of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSD-I) and Social Security Old Age Trust accounts. This has been done eleven times since 1950 without any issue. Currently, 12.4 percent (6.2 percent employer, 6.2 percent employee) of a person’s wages go into FICA. Of this 1.8 percent goes into the Disability Insurance Trust Fund and the remainder goes into the Old Age Trust Fund. Reallocation means that for a period of two years, 2.8 percent would go into the Disability Insurance Trust. After two years, it reverts back to 1.8 percent. This would balance both funds and they would be able to make full payments through 2033. If this reallocation does not happen, at the end of 2016, every single person who receives SSD-I will take a 20 percent cut in their payment.

This is harmful to the most vulnerable in our state. These payments are modest and very difficult to get. Typically, it takes three tries to be accepted. I know two individuals who are on SSD-I who receive help from their parents because they cannot afford to pay for essentials. I’m sure there are more people in this situation. Imagine decreasing already stressed budgets by 20 percent. How many will be forced to decrease their prescription drugs, re-use disposable medical equipment and become susceptible to additional illness or disability.

In Montana, the public’s testimony has been falling on deaf ears. Perhaps with a little more time, our Congressional leaders in Washington will do the right thing and allow a reallocation in Social Security. Please contact your Congressmen and ask them to change this. Allow the reallocation so that people living in poverty won’t be hurt even more.

I want to thank Senator Tester for his recent votes to expand Social Security, refuse cuts to Social Security and allow for legally married same-sex couples to be afforded equal access to Social Security Benefits. I would also like to point out that not a single Republican voted yes on any of these amendments.

Virjeana (Jeannie) Brown is the former candidate HD 67 in Belgrade.

Montana Grassroots Ambassador joins MHAction North Dakota Training

Montana Grassroots Ambassador joins MHAction North Dakota Training

On February 25-28, 2105, MHAction community leaders Jesse Martinez from Massachusetts and Richard Robinson from Utah, Montana Organizing Project’s grassroots ambassador Marsha Schumacher, and the Center for Community Change’s Don Elmer led an intensive cross leadership training in Williston, North Dakota.

Here is what they were able to accomplish:

  • Trained local community leaders on a vast array of social and economic justice issues so we can better understand the forces at play that are affecting our lives.
  • Put together local plans and commitments around the development of local Home Owners Associations in order to increase communication among homeowners and build our power.
  • Met with the Mayor of Williston and City Council Members and County level elected officials on important policy protections that can be put in place to protect our families from unscrupulous community owners and protect the availability of affordable housing in the Williston area.

We’re looking forward to more opportunities to bring Grassroots Ambassadors and MHAction leaders together in the coming year.

Click here to check out pictures of the cross train and remember to ‘Like’ MHAction on Facebook.  

Local activists visit Helena to talk Medicaid expansion

Local activists visit Helena to talk Medicaid expansion

From Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Monday, February 16, 2015

HELENA — A small group of Democratic activists from Bozeman traveled to the state capitol Monday to tell state lawmakers that they should vote for a bill that would expand Medicaid eligibility using federal funds.

Two questions arose during their preparation for the day: Should they spend time lobbying every legislator they could, including the Republicans who have already made their opposition known? As an alternative, they talked about seeking out “fence-sitters.”

“Some people like talking to people from the other side who will never come over in support,” said Dan Lourie, a member of the Gallatin Democrats who made the drive. “I’m not one of them.”

Twenty-eight states have expanded Medicaid eligibility. Montana and four other states are deliberating expansion. Several states have sought and received a waiver to allow them to use Obamacare funding to buy private plans for low-income Americans.

The second question that the Bozeman activists debated before they descended on the capitol was what should they say. Lourie chose the morality argument. Fellow Democratic activist Suzanne Tarpey said an economic argument was better suited for those who oppose it.

“I think it’s important to tell Republicans that Montana is losing $1.8 million per day,” Tarpey said.

Under House Bill 249, the Medicaid expansion bill backed by Gov. Steve Bullock and Democrats, an estimated 65,000 low-income Montanans making less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line would get coverage. The federal government would pay the bill.

According to an analysis by the Montana Budget and Policy Center, Gallatin County has more than 5,000 uninsured adults who would be insured if the Legislature acted.

Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, opposes Medicaid expansion but scheduled a hearing for the bill on March 6.

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, said if the bill fails in committee, Democrats would attempt to “blast” it to the floor. Blast motions need 60 votes from the House floor to move out of committee.

Republicans have a different plan they’re calling “Big Sky Health.” They say that it is a practical and innovative alternative that is not conditional on federal funds.

“We want everyone in the Medicaid gap to be helped,” Wittich told the Chronicle on Monday. “We think this plan is better because it’s long term, state managed, and can be immediately executed.”

Under one bill by Wittich, the uninsured Montanans are broken into subgroups: veterans, parents and childless adults who are able-bodied and addressed with existing policies. Another measure would create a fund using a state tax collected on healthcare premiums to pay for the “catastrophic care” for the uninsured.

“We can do this ourselves,” Wittich said. “We think its going to be cheaper, but we’re not sure.”

Still another bill is being developed by Republican Sen. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls. Bullock’s staff have been in contact with Buttrey to discuss a possible compromise bill, said spokesman Dave Parker.

“The Republican plan puts politics ahead of people and what’s best for Montana,” Parker said. “Their plan covers fewer people, costs Montana taxpayers more and does nothing to lessen the burdens of uncompensated care, which is bankrupting Montana’s rural hospitals. We can and must do better.”

Aid for needy debated at Capitol (Great Falls Tribune article, featuring MOP Ambassador Melissa Smylie)

Aid for needy debated at Capitol (Great Falls Tribune article, featuring MOP Ambassador Melissa Smylie)

From the Great Falls Tribune

John S. Adams,  January 24, 2015

HELENA – Most people who live on the same societal rung as Melissa Smylie don’t have much time to pay attention to the dramas that unfold at the state Capitol every two years.

Smylie, a 48-year-old mother of four from Great Falls who has spent most of her life living in poverty, is plenty busy just trying to make ends meet and take care of her daughter who lives at home. But that didn’t stop her from traveling to the Capitol on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday to advocate on behalf of people who, like her, rely on help from the government to get by.

“I will always advocate for public assistance safety-net programs because they helped me out, at a time when I was most vulnerable, to achieve a college education that will raise my family out of poverty,” Smylie said in an interview Thursday.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposal to extend government-funded health care coverage to an additional 70,000 low-income Montanans has put people like Smylie in the spotlight and driven a wedge among Republicans.

Last week, that light got a bit hotter when the Republican chairman of two key committees subpoenaed public aid workers to testify about problems with the state computer system that administers benefits to needy Montanans. That discussion soon broadened as the state employees’ under-oath testimony went beyond critiques of the state computer system and delved into allegations that many people who access welfare programs aren’t deserving of the benefits.

Kirsten Brown and John Desch, state welfare workers from Libby, and Linda Ruther, a retired state welfare worker from Kalispell appeared before the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services and the House Human Services Committee.

Their testimony came on the same day Bullock unveiled his Healthy Montana Plan. Under House Bill 249, adults making up to $16,105 a year and a family of four earning up to $32,913 would qualify for government-paid health care coverage.

Critics of the Republican opposition to Medicaid expansion said Monday’s panel discussions about problems in the state-run welfare programs were orchestrated to undermine Bullock’s health care proposal.

Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, was outraged the public was given virtually no notice about the panel or the topic of the discussion, and the Republican chairs of the two committees did not allow for public comment.

“When you’re going to make statements on the record that are that negative about people who (the state workers) serve, people who, without those folks, those people wouldn’t even have a job, then I think those people should be able to be here to defend themselves,” Caferro said.

In need

Smylie spent years spinning her wheels working minimum-wage jobs in the service industry. She said she was able to get by and provide for her family until disaster struck.

In 2008, while carrying a tray full of plates at the restaurant where she worked, a tendon in her hand “snapped.” Smylie didn’t have health insurance, and she said she couldn’t prove the injury was work-related in order to receive medical care under workers’ compensation insurance.

“I got injured, lost my job and all my assets that I had in the bank,” Smylie said. “Once I fell below that poverty line, then I qualified for Medicaid as a parent because I have a qualifying child. I had to have the qualifying child and I had to be dirt poor to get the health care I needed.”

Smylie said once she qualified for Medicaid, she was able to undergo an operation to fix her injured hand.

“Medicaid put me in a position to where I could go to work,” Smylie said.

Medicaid coverage also allowed Smylie to receive much-needed mental health treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“While I was recovering from having the operation, I realized the only way out of poverty for me and my child was to go back to school,” Smylie said. “There is no way a single parent on minimum wage is ever going to make ends meet.”

Due to her physical and mental impairments, Smylie was able to qualify for vocational rehabilitation assistance, which helps cover the cost of her college education. Today she attends classes at the University of Great Falls where she’s working on earning a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies with a minor in political science.

At the same time, Smylie is trying to find a way to make the roughly $650-worth of government assistance pay her bills and put food on the table.

Smylie says she gets about $400 in cash assistance each month through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

“My monthly TANF payment is $400 and my rent is exactly $425 per month,” Smylie said.

In order to qualify for that monthly cash assistance payment, Smylie needs to spend 33 hours per week on supervised work-related activities. In her case, that means she has to sign in and sign out when she goes to classes and each time she studies.

Republican Rep. Tom Burnett, R-Bozeman, an outspoken critics of welfare programs, said in Monday’s budget panel hearing that TANF “carries a work requirement that is often shirked.”

In a Dec. 2 email to lawmakers, Brown, who works as the client service coordinator in the state Office of Public Assistance in Libby, wrote:

“There are many able-bodied adults that are simply relying on the benefits we provide. It is very similar to the adage about not feeding wild animals as they will become dependent on the handouts. This is exactly what is happening.”

In that same email, Brown claimed her supervisor instructed a public aid worker to issue benefits to a woman who Brown believed was lying about her living situation and income.

“All the while, the mother is driving a Hummer,” Brown claimed.

Smylie said she isn’t buying it.

“The requirements are super, super strict,” Smylie said. “You have to give those 33 hours or you get a sanction for noncompliance. If you have to take a couple days off because your kids are sick and can’t go to school, then that throws you out of compliance.”

Smylie says the 132 hours she has to account for each week earns her about $3.03 per hour in cash benefits.

Smylie said she doesn’t doubt there may be some people who try to “game the system” to receive benefits they don’t deserve, but she doesn’t believe the problem is as widespread as critics claim.

“A few people have given a lot of people a bad name,” Smylie said. “There is no such thing as the welfare queen. Trust me.”

Fraud and waste

Welfare critics often cite anecdotes about waste, fraud and abuse in those government programs, but research shows major assistance programs such as SNAP, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program have low error rates.

According to a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services study on improper Medicaid payments, 3.8 percent of claims from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2013 involved improper overpayments.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, the FY 2013 national payment error rate for SNAP was 3.2 percent, which was the lowest rate in the history of the program.

TANF error rates are higher, but the reporting is not as robust so it’s difficult to pin down just how much higher.

A 2007 Office of Inspector General report on TANF error rates in New York found the overall TANF improper payment rate was 28.5 percent nationally, which the OIG attributed primary to “eligibility and payment calculation errors” or “documentation errors.”

In Montana, 7,424 people collect TANF benefits on average each month and 73 percent of those recipients are children.

According to 2014 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the percentage of SNAP benefit dollars issued nationally to ineligible households, or to eligible households in excessive amounts, fell for the seventh-consecutive year in 2013 to 2.61 percent.

When the underpaid benefits are subtracted from the overpaid benefits, the net loss to the federal government in 2013 was about 2 percent, the CBPP reported.

Dorothy Rosenbaum, a senior fellow for the center, said in addition to low error rates, research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that less than 1 percent of SNAP benefits are illegally trafficked, or sold for cash.

“There is this perception that people who don’t need SNAP benefits somehow get them,” Rosenbaum said. “But research shows it is not the case that benefits are going to people who are not eligible.”

Matt Russell is State Food Policy Project Coordinator at Drake University Agricultural Law Center.

Russell said it’s difficult to make a case that fraud and waste is widespread in the SNAP program.

“I can say emphatically that the SNAP program is one of the very best government programs. It has one of the lowest rates of fraud and abuse, one of the highest multiplier effects,” Russell said.

Russell said SNAP dollars are efficiently distributed and are spent almost immediately at local grocery stores and farmers markets.

“It’s really good government at its best,” Russell said.

Russell said critics who claim SNAP beneficiaries spend those food stamp dollars on junk food and sugary drinks are basing those allegations on anecdotes and misconceptions rather than hard facts and data. That’s partly because the USDA holds data about what foods SNAP families purchase under lock.

However, Russell said social science surveys and research has found that the buying patterns of SNAP beneficiaries are similar to non-SNAP families.

“Almost all of that research points to a SNAP family of four in the U.S. has buying patterns that are very similar to a family that is not using SNAP,” Russell said.

Russell said those who want to restrict what types of foods people can buy with SNAP benefits would risk throwing a big wrench in an efficiently run program. Who would decide what is on the list of approved foods, and how would producers react to having their products eliminated from SNAP eligibility, Russell wonders.

“It’s not just problematic because it stigmatizes SNAP families, but doesn’t create the outcome that we want,” Russell said.

GOP Divide

The majority of Republicans in the House and Senate oppose Bullock’s Medicaid expansion plan. However Bullock got a boost for an unlikely ally on Wednesday when Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich appeared at the state Capitol to meet with Republican lawmakers.

Kasich was in Montana to promote a balanced budget amendment campaign, but soon found himself in spirited exchange with a conservative state lawmaker who criticized Kasich’s support for Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.

Kasich pushed through expansion in his state and has been an outspoken critic of states that refuse to do the same.

“We have a lot of demands, as you have in every state across the country for the mentally ill, the drug addicted, and the working poor,” Kasich told a room full of GOP lawmakers. “As we’re trying to figure all these things out, I’m not going to be an ideologue here and say to people, ‘Sorry, the door is closed and if you’ve got these problems such as addictions or mental illness, and you’re trying to work your way up and you’re poor, we’re not going to help you,’ I don’t think that’s right and I don’t think that’s a conservative proposition.”

For Smylie, Kasich’s words brought some hope.

“I want to tell people, ‘Don’t get caught up in the misconceptions about public assistance recipients,'” she said. “You might be surprised, many of the families that rely on these programs are working to achieve sustainability.”

Grassroots Ambassadors Jeannie Brown shares caregiver story in press briefing

Grassroots Ambassadors Jeannie Brown shares caregiver story in press briefing

Read the full press release about the caregiver credit polling data here.

Listen to Jeannie tell her story:

 

Jeannie Brown of Belgrade Montana, who left the workforce to care for her chronically disabled granddaughter, said that a Social Security caregiver credit would make a critical difference for her in retirement.

“I would like to see the caregiver credit act passed for people like me who have left the workforce for a loved one,” said Brown. “It is very important to all of us caregivers to be given this opportunity to have some dignity when it is finally our time to retire.”