Albemarle preparing for end of COVID federal benefits
It has been two and three quarter years since COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency and much of the economy was shut down for a while to help reduce the spread of a virus that was still little known. Rules for federal benefits were altered for a while and now social services departments across the United States are scrambling to prepare for that period to end.
“The Department of Social Services finds itself responding to some pretty significant mid-year federal policy change which we predict will result in a significant increase in the workload required for us to manage this,” said Kaki Dimock, Albemarle County’s Director of Social Services.
Dimock went before the Albemarle Board of Supervisors on December 14 to request additional staff to handle the end of COVID-19 benefits.
“During the beginning of the pandemic, the federal safety net programs very intentionally decided to create expanded eligibility and no ending of benefits during the period of time during the pandemic which was super helpful for people experiencing workforce disruptions and additional concerns for their families,” Dimock said.
That has increased the workload for Albemarle and other jurisdictions who ultimately report to the Virginia Department of Social Services. For the county, that means over 10,500 open Medicaid cases and 3,400 households on SNAP benefits and for over two and a half years, there was no requirement to vet whether any of the cases are qualified. That will soon come to an end after a series of extensions expires.
“When the public health emergency benefits end, all of those cases will need to be reviewed for eligibility,” Dimock said. “And this time we were informed pretty robustly by both state and federal representatives not to expect an additional extension.”
The exact date for when the period has not yet been released. Localities do not have the option to waive eligibility requirements for federal programs. Thousands of cases will need to be reviewed and those reviews will need to be approved by staff supervisors.
“It will require all recipients of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to participate in Virginia’s Initiative for Education and Work (VIEW) and that requirement will begin in January regardless of whether the public health benefits are extended or not,” Dimock said.
Dimock is requesting an additional five full-time equivalents to help with the additional workload. She said there is a possibility of additional support from the Commonwealth but not enough information is known. She said overtime for existing staff is not an option given high workloads as it is.
“And so as a workforce stabilization and retention effort, we’re choosing not to pursue overtime as the only method,” Dimock said. “We’re concerned we’ll lose our staff.”
The positions would be classified as temporary but the idea would be that new people hired could remain within the department as other people retire.
Supervisor Jim Andrews (Samuel Miller) had a question about whether Albemarle was alone in making these preparations.
“This is sort of mandated through federal policy changes that are implemented nationwide presumably and also affecting many localities throughout Virginia in the exact same way,” Andrews said. “I don’t know if there have been any other conversations with other jurisdictions about how they’re handling this or if this is a scramble that everyone is going to be going through.”
Dimock said she has been in conversation with other jurisdictions and different localities are taking different approaches.
“There are some jurisdictions that say they have unfilled positions that they feel like they can fill to manage the workload without additional [full-time equivalents] and others who are in similar requests and scrambling to try to provide some additional overtime, some temporary support and additional staff like we are suggesting today,” Dimock said.
Supervisor Diantha McKeel said she wanted the public to understand how crucial the role Social Services has played during the pandemic.
“I just really appreciate all of your all’s hard work and the overtime and everything that your department has struggled with over the last two or three years,” McKeel said.
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