Steamboat Springs Times are tough and getting tougher in Routt County.
The number of households receiving federal food assistance has more than doubled to 316 in two years, and the total amount of those benefits is expected to reach $1.125 million this year and grow to $1.25 million in 2011.
“A large portion of the increase in our caseload is attributable to single people — a transient work force,” said Vickie Clark, director of the Routt County Department of Human Services. “The maximum (monthly) amount a single person can receive in food assistance is $200, and that’s not enough to eat on.”
But it would be misleading to over-emphasize the role single adults play in the trend, she added. The people seeking food assistance include business owners and people in industries related to construction. They have families and car payments, and they need help.
Kevin Haynes, an eligibility technician in Clark’s office, knows that for every household seeking food assistance, there is an emotional story. Haynes spends his days interviewing applicants for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“People are hitting the end of their resources,” Haynes said. “I talked to a single man this morning. He’d been trying and trying to get through to the (state) unemployment office. He was expecting a check any day, and he has a mortgage to pay.”
In October 2008, Clark’s office was working with 156 households who met asset and income requirements to qualify for benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps. A year later in October 2009, as the recession deepened, the number of households relying on the program had grown to 260, and the total monthly benefits disbursed had grown from $28,456 to $65,507.
This month, the benefit total could reach $100,000. All of those funds come from the federal government, Clark said.
SNAP guidelines were created to protect children, making it easier for a household with youngsters to get food assistance than it is for individuals. The maximum monthly allotment for a household of three is $526, and it grows to $668 for a four-person household.
However, food is just part of the challenge, and Clark and her staff have taken to stocking the basic toiletries that SNAP doesn’t cover.
“We had a woman come in and tell us she hadn’t had toilet paper in two weeks,” Clark said. “When she returned to the office, we had some waiting for her. Disposable diapers are also tough. They aren’t covered by SNAP. But even the generic brand from Walmart costs $20 for 30 diapers.”
Officials at Yampa Valley Medical Center said the amount of charitable services they provided in October and November exceeded their expectations. And that jump came after the dollar value of medical care provided through the hospital’s patient financial assistance programs already had increased 22 percent in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. YVMC Chief Financial Officer Julie Johnson said the bill for patients who couldn’t afford to pay the full cost of their care last fiscal year reached $5.2 million. The net amount ultimately will be reduced slightly by reimbursements from the state.
Chief Operating Officer Frank May said Friday that $5.2 million represents about 5 percent of YVMC’s $100 million annual revenue from health care. And the $5.2 million has nothing to do with the Medicare or Medicaid, nor the gap between hospital charges and Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements, May said.
“As a private not-for-profit hospital, there’s an expectation something will be given back” to the community, May said. “We budget for it each year. It’s part of the operating expense we deal with.”
He confirmed that patients who can afford hospital care subsidize the burden of paying for indigent care.
“Those that have insurance are paying for a larger portion of the” hospital’s cost of delivering care, he said.
However, May said, indigent patients are all expected to make a co-pay for a portion of the cost of their procedure.
The funds come from two sources: the Colorado Indigent Care Program, which offers modest refunds from the state, and YVMC’s own charity program. The indigent program covers care for people whose incomes are as high as about 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines, and the hospital’s charity fund covers patients at as high as 325 to 350 percent of poverty guidelines who still cannot afford their care. The financial assistance is available for elective and non-elective procedures, May said.
No longer a short bridge
Federal poverty guidelines, which are indexed to the entire country, only make things tougher for people who are struggling financially in Routt County, Clark said. That’s because the guidelines don’t account for the high cost of living here.
Net income determines the level of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
The allowable net monthly income at 100 percent of the federal poverty standard (minus permitted deductions like child care necessary for employment) for a household of one is $903. A monthly income of $1,174 is the threshold for 130 percent. The thresholds grow to $1,526 and $1,984 for a three-person household.
Clark said that in her experience, households typically were on food assistance for two or three months until they found work. Today, there are signs that people will stay on SNAP for increasing lengths of time because they cannot find work.
“It used to be a short-term bridge. Many people haven’t lost work altogether, but they’re working fewer hours,” she said.
The growing number of clients is taxing her staff’s ability to meet demand, Clark said.
“We’ve been getting 1,000 calls a month, and the amount of walk-in traffic, 500, that’s a crazy amount.”
And the office is growing busier because a recent Colorado law is expanding the eligibility of adults with children for Medicaid. Beginning in 2013, some single adults also will be eligible for Medicaid.
A recent grant is helping Routt Human Services keep up with the demand. The Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association led a successful Colorado Health Foundation grant application based on the Medicaid expansion that resulted in boosting Haynes’ position from a little less than half-time to full time.
However, when he isn’t able to get results for everyone who calls him each day, he has a tendency to take his work home with him.
“I worry that I cost them another day’s delay in getting benefits,” Haynes said.
Clark said her office has been successful in expediting crucial SNAP applications to get a seven-day turnaround for people in extreme need, instead of the typical 30-day wait. For all of her SNAP clients, the LIFT-UP Food Bank is an important resource, Clark said.
Her staff also is contacting people that they know cannot get out of the house to let them know about the Routt County United Way Christmas Wishes program. It identifies generous residents who are willing to buy holiday gifts for people in need.
“Many of them are asking for gift cards to the grocery stores,” Clark said.