HARTFORD — As a social worker helping lead the state Legislature’s Human Services Committee, State Rep. Jillian Gilchrest, D-West Hartford, said she sees firsthand the hardships that needy people face.
The committee, which Gilchrest co-chairs with State Sen. Matthew Lesser, D-Middletown, has jurisdiction over all matters related to the Department of Social Services, as well as the Department of Aging and Disability Services.
Gilchrest told CT Examiner this week that her role as a trained social worker gives her “insights into the issues and how people experiencing poverty” have to interact with social service agencies.
She said the 2023 session — in which 18 of the 47 committee-approved bills were signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont — was a success on many fronts. The upcoming short session, which begins Feb. 7, is where Gilchrest said she hopes to make even more inroads on issues including equity coverage for fertility health care, Medicaid coverage for the thousands of low income people who struggle to pay for diapers, and increasing Medicaid rates for physician specialists, dentists and behavioral health providers.
Gilchrest said she’s most proud of two measures passed last year: One broadening Medicaid eligibility for Connecticut children without permanent legal status, and giving more leeway to residents who use the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
The Medicaid legislation expanded the eligibility for aid by requiring the Department of Social Services to extend it to children aged 15 and under, instead of the current criteria of 12 and under. Children who qualify under these new parameters can also keep the coverage until they turn 19, as long as they continue to meet income requirements, and remain eligible for HUSKY A or HUSKY B, or affordable employer-sponsored insurance. The law takes effect July 1.
“It doesn’t cover everyone, which I wanted, but we do expand the number of children who are covered,” Gilchrest said. “We also have a study to look into getting the age to 21.”
Regarding the TANF program, Gilchrest said the law “attempts to address what’s often called the benefit clift. And so, it recognizes that just because someone might get an increase in their income, it doesn’t mean they are automatically ready to be [cut] off from receiving benefits.”
Gilchrest said that the program, traditionally referred to as welfare, gives leniency to those who might have received more income.
“In the past, if they made 50 cents or a dollar more than the qualifying amount, they would immediately be kicked off the benefits. We know they are not ready yet to stop receiving benefits,” she said. “So in those cases, we are doing a phase out of the program to help them get back on their feet. It ensures they can find success before they lose their benefits.”
The goal of the federal program is to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency. In Connecticut, TANF funds the Temporary Family Assistance Program, which is administered by the DSS.
To qualify for the TANF program, families must have at least one child aged 17 or younger, but it also covers families with dependent children aged 18 years or older, provided the child is a full-time vocational or high school student. It also covers pregnant women who lack alternative means of support and meet the eligibility criteria.
Gilchrest said she’s also hoping several bills that didn’t make it to the governor’s desk get revisited during this year’s session, including a measure requiring Medicaid to cover fertility health care.
“There were a lot of negative assumptions about low-income people and individuals who are on Medicaid,” she said. “I was not anticipating the pushback we received.”
Another bill Gilchrest wants to revisit involved Medicaid coverage for diapers and other health-related social needs. She claimed that thousands of women in the state often have to choose between buying diapers and other necessities.
“For a child, there are negative health consequences. But for a parent, it can cause depression and it can also prevent them from going to work. If you do not have diapers, you can’t bring a child to child care,” she said, noting that diapers can cost upward of $50 a month. “These are parents that just can’t afford diapers and are on a limited budget. They are figuring out whether they can afford food, electric bills, rent and also the diapers.”
Gilchrest said one of her top goals for 2024 deals with increasing Medicaid rates for certain professions, most notably physician specialists, dentists and behavioral health providers.
She said it’s important to “support the health care workforce because, currently, the low Medicaid rates are impacting the amount providers are paid.” Connecticut’s current rates are 57 percent of 2007 rates, she added.
Asked about the relationship the committee has with Lamont, Gilchrest said, “I think he is supportive in theory, but in practice I’m frustrated. For example, with Medicaid rates, the state owes these providers money. I think we need to look at that; we are not doing well financially if we are not paying the people we owe money to their money.”
Gilchrest said the committee is bipartisan, and that Democrats and Republicans on the panel see eye-to-eye on most things.
“I think people who want to serve on Human Services come to the committee because they usually have some personal reason to do so, or because they recognize that the committee is about helping people,” she said. “They want solutions, they do not come to be divisive.”