At Legal Aid, our representation of our client community and its experiences extends beyond the courtroom. Our mission of making justice real also means we engage in advocacy and activism on behalf of our clients, often with the government and bureaucratic entities with which they most frequently interact. Over the past month, attorneys in our Public Benefits Unit testified before D.C. Council to relate to council members some salient issues and challenges facing many District residents.
On February 26, 2014, Drake Hagner testified before the Committee on Business, Consumer & Regulatory Affairs on the performance of the Department of Employment Services (DOES). While Legal Aid commends the agency for recent improvements, she also raised two areas of ongoing concern: (1) the agency’s lack of transparency in overpayment and waiver request processing, and (2) the need for continued improvement with how the agency interacts with individuals who have limited or no English proficiency. On the first issue, Drake noted that even when individuals have been overpaid unemployment benefits through no fault of their own – for example, when their employer made a mistake in reporting their past wages or because a decision to award them benefits was later overturned by the agency – they are not notified of their right to request a waiver or given any instructions on how to do so. The few claimants who do submit waivers wait many months for a reply, or sometimes never receive a written response. On the second, she acknowledged that DOES has made improvements regarding its telephone and in-person customer service for workers who speak limited or no English, but she expressed continued concern that DOES is in non-compliance with the D.C. Language Access Act, in that it still fails to provide written translations of vital documents that inform workers of their rights and eligibility for benefits.
The same day, Westra Miller testified before the Committee on Human Services regarding the performance of the Economic Security Administration (ESA). ESA administers many of the benefits programs on which our clients often rely, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), and medical assistance like Medicaid.
Through the testimony, which was jointly prepared by staff attorney Chelsea Sharon, Westra shared clients’ stories regarding their experiences seeking help and obtaining benefits at ESA service centers. Their stories highlight problems not only with day-to-day operations and the inconsistent quality of the services provided at the centers, but also ongoing systemic failures that impact beneficiaries’ (and would-be beneficiaries’) legal rights. Although Legal Aid recognizes that ESA is making some effort to address many of these concerns, we believe it was important to share our clients’ perspectives. We hope to continue to work with ESA as the agency improves its processes for administering these key benefits programs.
Finally, on March 6, 2014, Stephanie Akpa testified on behalf of Legal Aid at the Committee on Health’s public oversight hearing on the performance of the Department of Health Care Finance (DHCF). DHCF administers the District’s medical assistance programs, including the Medicaid and DC HealthCare Alliance (Alliance) programs. In her testimony, Stephanie recommended that DHCF take the following three steps to improve health care access and outcomes for the District’s low-income population: (1) improve coordination with the Department of Human Services and the District of Columbia Health Benefit Exchange Authority; (2) track the numbers of people who complete their Medicaid renewals; and (3) replace the six-month in-person recertification requirement for the Alliance with an annual recertification requirement. While Stephanie’s testimony acknowledged DHCF’s tremendous work restructuring the Medicaid Program to comply with the Affordable Care Act and taking steps to increase transparency and oversight in the Medicaid managed care organization, she also emphasized that the above-listed steps are necessary to build a stronger, healthier District.
Understandably, an employment services agency’s failure to provide documents in a language that a claimant can understand, unbearable wait times that eat away a public benefit applicant’s workdays, and inefficient and delayed processing of health care applications are very real barriers to justice that our clients face every day. Not only are we grateful for the opportunity to draw D.C. Council’s attention to these issues, we are proud to stand behind our clients to amplify their voices and their stories.