COVID-19 Response: Safety Net Policy Tracker

COVID-19 Response: Safety Net Policy Tracker

This post was last updated on November 30, 2020. As new policies are announced, FPI will update this page.

As Florida’s response to COVID-19 takes front and center, concern grows for low-income families who struggle to take precautions against the spread of the virus. Although Congress has passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to address, at least in part,  the public health crisis and economic fallout from COVID-19, many barriers continue to keep struggling families from accessing the assistance they need during the pandemic. As Florida initiates policies implementing the Act and addressing other barriers to the safety net, FPI will update this form. When available, hyperlinks are provided to agency documents or statements that provide greater detail  about the new policy. 

On March 22, FPI and 44 other organizations sent a letter to Governor DeSantis, leadership in the Legislature and agency heads to urge action on 47 specific policy changes to reduce unnecessary barriers for Florida’s safety net programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. See the letter here.

REEMPLOYMENT ASSISTANCE (RA)

Reemployment Assistance weeks to increase January 1, 2021. DEO determines the maximum number of weeks available to RA claimants based on a statutory formula that looks at the average unemployment rate for the most recent third calendar year quarter (i.e., July, August, and September). Based on the recent uptick in unemployment, the maximum number of weeks for RA will be increased to 19 weeks after 1/1/2021.

Florida administers federal lost wages assistance program for four weeks. On September 8, 2020, DEO announced that it began  to implement President Trump’s Federal Lost Wages Assistance Program (LWA). DEO provides an additional $300 per week to eligible Reemployment Assistance claimants, including but not limited to those who receive PUA and PEUC. DEO says that claimants must have been receiving at least $100 in an approved Reemployment Assistance program weekly benefit amount and must certify that they are unemployed or partially unemployed due to COVID-19. Here is a link to FEMA’s web page about the program. Additional guidance from USDOL is here. FAQs are here. Florida’s LAW program was  for four weeks only, beginning for the week of August 1, 2020.

Once Extended Benefits is available in the CONNECT system, the Department will do continued outreach to those individuals to ensure they are receiving benefits from the appropriate program.

Quarter change reporting instituted. DEO is requiring that Floridians receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) or Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) either reapply for assistance or complete a Quarter Change Questionnaire. DEO’s Fact Sheets and step-by-step video guides about quarter change reporting are here. According to DEO, this is because the federal government requires Florida to determine, on a quarterly basis, whether individuals who are currently receiving PUA or PEUC are eligible for Reemployment Assistance benefits.

RA work-search and work registration requirements waived through December 5, 2020. Persons filing an application for RA benefits beginning March 15, 2020, are not required to complete work registration in Employ Florida through December 5, 2020. In addition, work search requirements for individuals requesting benefits for the weeks beginning March 15, 2020, are also waived through December 5, 2020.

RA biweekly reporting requirements reinstated. Although previously waived, biweekly reporting was reinstated effective May 10, 2020. DEO’s guide to claiming weeks is here.

Florida signs CARES agreement. Florida signed an agreement with the United States Department of Labor on March 28, 2020, stating that it intends to implement CARES Act Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). Here is a link to the National Employment Law Project’s analysis of UI provisions in the CARES Act.

Mobile app deployed. DEO has deployed a mobile app for RA applications. 

Wait week waived.  DEO has waived the wait week for Reemployment Assistance through December 5, 2020, which means that Floridians can get help for the first week they are out of a job. However, DEO says that, for applications prior to March 29th, 2020, the waiting week still applies.

Claimants allowed to modify application date. DEO says that, because Floridians have had a hard time applying for Reemployment Assistance due to no fault of their own, claimants can request to modify their claim filing effective date:” According to DEO, back-dating only applies  to claimants who attempted to apply and were not able to file a claim between the weeks of March 9, 2020, to April 9, 2020.  In those cases, the claim date can be adjusted to the date that the claimant  originally tried to apply. To do so, DEO advises that claimants visit www.FloridaJobs.org and select the link “Request to Modify Claim (Application) Filing Effective Date.” 

DEO to allow RA applicants to file using paper applications. On April 2, 2020, the Governor issued an executive order allowing RA applicants to use paper applications to apply, reassigning state agency staff to assist with RA efforts, authorizing DEO to  procure additional resources to accommodate the increased volume of applications, and directing DEO to identify a third-party company to collect and deliver hard copy applications to DEO. The paper application can be downloaded here. Paper applications can also be obtained at CareerSource offices,where assistance in submitting  applications will be available. Some libraries are also offering application forms.  Check with your local CareerSource office or library first. New applicants who wish to apply online should apply at FloridaJobs.org.

DEO to allow RA applicants to file using paper applications. On April 2, 2020, the Governor issued an executive order allowing RA applicants to use paper applications to apply, reassigning state agency staff to assist with RA efforts, authorizing DEO to procure additional resources to accommodate the increased volume of applications, and directing DEO to identify a third-party company to collect and deliver hard copy applications to DEO. The paper application can be downloaded here. Paper applications can also be obtained at CareerSource offices, where assistance in submitting  applications will be available. Some libraries are also offering application forms.  Check with your local CareerSource office or library first. New applicants who wish to apply online should apply at FloridaJobs.org.

FedEx to print and mail RA applications. DEO has partnered with with FedEx to allow unemployment claimants to print applications at over 100 FedEx offices and have those applications delivered by FedEx to Tallahassee for processing.

DEO to begin answering claim-specific questions. Effective 4/20/2020, DEO says that it began answering the claim-specific questions of those who call 1-833-353-6799. In addition, DEO also has an online contact form for claims-specific questions here. For general questions that are not claim-specific, DEO asks that callers call 1-833 FL APPLY (1-833-352-7759) 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

DEO finalizes PEUC application process. DEO has issued guidance governing Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which is up to an additional 13 weeks of assistance for unemployed RA recipients whose benefits have expired or been exhausted. Claimants are required to complete an application for state Reemployment Assistance benefits before applying for PEUC. If ineligible for RA, claimants will be redirected to file for PEUC through an “Apply for PEUC Benefits” hyperlink. In addition, Floridians who have already exhausted their benefits or have a Reemployment Assistance claim that expired after July 1, 2019, may also be able to apply.Benefits are payable for as early as March 29, 2020. The last week payable ends on December 26, 2020. Claimants must report weeks bi-weekly, remain unemployed, and be able and available for work

Updates from DEO on PUA CARES Act assistance. DEO has  issued guidance governing Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for Floridians who have exhausted their RA benefits as well as self-employed, contract employees and gig workers who do not qualify for RA. To receive PUA, a claimant’s job must have been directly impacted by COVID-19.

  • In the guidance, DEO directs workers who have not yet applied to www.FloridaJobs.org and instructs them to select “File a Claim” to complete an application. DEO says that PUA applicants must file for Reemployment Assistance benefits before filing for PUA and tells workers who applied before April 5 to apply again. DEO also says that workers who filed a claim on or after April 5, 2020, but who have been given a monetary determination of “Ineligible,” should check CONNECT for a message to apply for PUA. For more details about applying and eligibility, go here. PUA provides up to 39 weeks of benefits. If qualified, Floridians may be eligible for up to $275 plus an additional $600 in weekly benefits. DEO cautions that the additional $600 applies to weeks of unemployment beginning March 29, 2020, but ends July 25, 2020. According to DEO’s Reemployment Assistance Resource Guide - COVID-19, retroactivity is only applicable to PUA.
  • As of April 23, DEO says that applicants for Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) must fill out a regular RA application and that the CONNECT system will prompt the applicant to fill out an additional  PUA application once they are determined ineligible for regular Reemployment Assistance benefits. Here is a link to DEO’s instructions to PUA claimants for what to do after they file their PUA application, as well as their rights and responsibilities. 
  • DEO has posted a video tutorial about PUA here.

DEO announces extended benefits. DEO announced that it plans to implement  Extended Benefits (EB), a federal UI program, in December 2020. Extended Benefits provides up to an additional 6 weeks of benefits to eligible individuals who have exhausted their RA and PEUC benefits during periods of high unemployment.

DEO institutes a waiting queue for CONNECT access. As of June 1, 2020, DEO instituted a waiting line queue to access CONNECT.

Resources and guidance. For a list of resources and guidance from the United States Department of Labor on unemployment insurance and COVID-19, go here.  

For DEO’s “Reemployment Assistance Frequently Asked Questions and Additional Resources,” updated 4/23/2020, go here.

For DEO’s latest claims data, go here.

DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES (DCF) MULTI-PROGRAM POLICIES

DCF closes offices. DCF announced on March 18, 2020, that it was closing brick-and-mortar storefronts due to coronavirus. Because 10 percent of persons apply for safety net benefits in person, DCF recommends that those Floridians use drop-boxes at the Department’s storefront locations to turn in their applications.

Phone applications allowed. Applications for assistance can be filed by phone. As many as 1,000 persons per day are applying by phone.

DCF expands call center hours. DCF has expanded call center hours Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to noon; and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. On the last Sunday of each month, hours of operations will be 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Call center numbers are 866-762-2237 or 850-300-4323 (TTY 1-800-955-8771).

Certification periods extended by 6 months only through August. Certification periods for cash, food and medical assistance were extended by 6 months for individuals and families scheduled to recertify in April through August  2020. FNS’ approval of the SNAP extension for August is here.  However, effective September 1, 2020, SNAP, TANF and Medicaid recertifications have been reinstated, although DCF says that no one will lose Medicaid due to recertification. 

DCF allows phone interviews. Phone interviews are now being used for TANF cash and SNAP food assistance. 

Mandatory work requirements suspended through DecemberUnder a directive from Governor DeSantis to waive work requirements for safety net programs, DCF waived work requirements for individuals participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program through December 2020. To do this, DCF explains that it partnered with the Department of Economic Opportunity to apply “good cause” statewide for TANF and SNAP recipients who would otherwise be subject to participation in mandatory work requirements as a condition of receiving those benefits. Through December, people who were sanctioned in the past due to work requirements will be able to reapply and participate in SNAP or TANF again. 

Congress passes Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
Congress has passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to address the public health crisis and economic fallout from COVID-19.  Although the Act was a significant first step, an even more comprehensive package to provide direct aid to individuals and families is needed.

SNAP

Emergency allotments issued. DCF automatically supplemented or will supplement SNAP allotments of current recipients up to the maximum for a household’s size for 10 months (March-December). DCF says that households who normally receive their monthly allotment between the 1st and 4th will receive the monthly maximum allotment on about the 4th. All other families can expect additional benefits to be included as a part of their regularly scheduled benefit allotment. New recipients will receive additional benefits within two weeks of being approved. FNS’ approval for December will be posted here.

Florida rolls out Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT). UPDATE: In a federal Continuing Resolution that became law on October 1, states can ask the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for permission to provide P-EBT in 2020-2021 to children who have a reduced number of days or hours that they are physically present in a brick-and-mortar school or child care. This includes students who opt for distance learning in Florida schools that are otherwise open as usual. We await Florida’s decision on whether the state will pursue P-EBT and, if so, the details. 

Earlier this year, USDA approved DCF’s request to provide P-EBT, which provided food assistance to families with children who are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals through the National School Lunch Program but whose school was closed due to the pandemic in the spring of 2020. This included all children in Community Eligibility Provision schools. Only children in schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program are potentially eligible for P-EBT. Florida’s official approval from FNS to administer P-EBT is here

P-EBT benefits were scheduled to have been issued automatically no later than June 30, 2020, except for eligible children in private or charter schools, who may not have received their P-EBT until July 21. For existing SNAP participants with children receiving free or reduced-price school meals, P-EBT benefits should have been automatically added to the family’s EBT card. Families participating in Medicaid or TANF who have children receiving free or reduced-price school meals were mailed their P-EBT benefit to the address on file with DCF. All other families should have gotten their P-EBT card at the address on file with the child’s school district. Families with children receiving free and reduced-price school meals prior to school closures on March 16, 2020, are supposed to receive a one-time benefit of $5.70 per day (55 days) per child. Families with children eligible for the free and reduced-price school meals program after March 16, 2020, should have  received a pro-rated amount based on the month of eligibility. .

Families who believe that their children qualify for P-EBT but either did not receive any benefits or received benefits in an amount that they think is incorrect, have recourse. Call DCF’s special P-EBT number at 1-833-311-0321 to discuss the problem.

See DCF’s frequently asked P-EBT questions  here and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ P-EBT FAQs here and  web page here.  FNS’ P-EBT webpage is here

Time limits suspended. SNAP time limits, in addition to work requirements, are suspended during the COVID-19 public health emergency. No one in Florida should be barred from SNAP due to time limits, even if they exhausted their time limit in the past.

DCF approved to ease interview requirements. USDA has given DCF a waiver, which was extended in June 2020, allowing the agency to waive an applicant’s interview prior to approval, provided the applicant’s identity has been verified. This includes applications for expedited service. As of July 7, 2020, it is unclear if this waiver will be extended further.

Florida granted waiver to allow families to purchase groceries online. DCF has been granted a federal waiver to permit the State of Florida to launch a pilot project statewide effective April 21, 2020, that allows families to purchase groceries online with their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card instead of going into stores.

  • At present, participating retailers are Walmart and Amazon. For Walmart, customers may pick up the groceries they ordered online or check to see if their Walmart offers local delivery. DCF cautions, however, that EBT cards cannot be used for delivery fees.Here is a link to DCF’s  online questions and answers about online purchasing with SNAP.

What about Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP)? Although a COVID-19 disaster declaration has been declared both at the federal and state level, no D-SNAP program has been approved by the President or initiated as of now. Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP) is linked to a federal declaration of disaster approving the program.

For a list of current SNAP waivers for Florida from USDA, go here. 

MEDICAID 

No Medicaid terminations from March through the end of the public health emergency. On March 31st, AHCA alerted providers and DCF posted on the ACCESS website that:

  • No Medicaid recipient will lose Medicaid eligibility during the COVID-19 public health emergency (unless the individual is no longer a state resident or request voluntary termination); under the newly enacted Families First Coronavirus Response Act, a state is prohibited from ending coverage for recipients enrolled as of March 18th for the duration of the public health emergency if the state opts to obtain an enhanced federal Medicaid match.
  • AHCA is working to notify recipients who may have received a termination notice in the month of March that their benefits will be reinstated.
  • An FAQ released by federal CMS provides some examples of Medicaid eligibility groups  protected under these "no termination" requirements including: former foster care youth aging out when they turn 26; youth aging out of children's eligibility when they turn 19; individuals who become ineligible for SSI; individuals no longer qualifying for Qualified Medicare Benefits (QMB). In a May 5 update, CMS states that this “no termination” requirement also applies to medically needy individuals determined eligible during the public health emergency even if they do not continue to meet their monthly share of cost in subsequent months. This protection extends through the last day of the month the public health emergency ends.  
  • On October 28, 2020, federal CMS issued a new interim final rule weakening the continuous coverage, “no termination” requirement. In states like Florida that have opted to cover full benefits for lawfully residing children in the first 5 years after entry into the United States, once they turn 18, states are now required to limit their coverage to emergency services.  In addition, states are now permitted to reduce optional benefits such as dental coverage or increase cost-sharing such as requiring nursing home residents to contribute more to their costs of care. But in Florida this type of change would require the Legislature to amend state Medicaid law.  

Redetermination/recertification times are reinstated. As of October 1, AHCA's website is alerting recipients that the Department of Children and Families is now mailing letters for case reviews to check if a household is still eligible for Medicaid and/or Medically Needy. AHCA is urging people receiving these letters to take steps now to re-apply. But note, Medicaid coverage will not end during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency. 

Extension of the public health emergency. The Public Health Emergency has been extended effective October 23, 2020. This means that no one’s Medicaid coverage can be terminated at least through January 31, 2021.

Extended application time. Effective with applications filed in February 2020, the time for submitting documentation required to process an application is extended for 120 days from the date of the application and eligibility will still be effective the first day of the month the application was received. 

Exclusion of additional unemployment payments in determining eligibility. The $600/week of additional unemployment insurance payments under the CARES Act will not be counted as income in determining Medicaid eligibility. (However, these payments will be counted as income in determining marketplace subsidy calculations).

Coverage of Medicaid services during the state of emergency

  • Coverage of all medically necessary services to COVID-19 testing and treatment.
  • Waiver of limits on services that must be exceeded to maintain the health and safety of recipients diagnosed with COVID-19 or when necessary to maintain a recipient safely in their home
  • Waiver of prior authorization requirements for hospital, physician, advanced practice registered nursing, physician assistant, home health services and durable medical equipment and supplies. As of June 19, 2020, AHCA reinstated prior authorization requirements for all of these services.
  • Waiver of copayments for all services
  • Waiver of limits on early prescription refills, except for controlled substances
  • Coverage of a 90-day supply of maintenance prescriptions when available at the pharmacy 
  • Reimbursement of out of state providers providing medically necessary services to Florida Medicaid beneficiaries
  • 120 day extension of time to request fair hearings
  • Delay of fair hearings only in those instances when the recipient is continuing to receive services pending the outcome of the hearing

AHCA has posted Medicaid Alerts and FAQs providing more detail on Medicaid service changes in response to COVID-19. They address a wide range of topics including, but not limited to: telemedicine guidance for medical, behavioral health, and early intervention services providers; long-term care provider network flexibilities allowing more types of providers to deliver specified long term care services; and continuity of care for adult day care center enrollees during the time these centers are closed.

AHCA is loosening coverage restrictions for behavioral health services. Effective May 5, all prior authorization requirements for mental health or substance use disorder treatment are waived and service limitations (frequency and duration) are lifted. For behavioral analysis services current authorizations will be extended through an "administrative approval process" which does not require providers to reassess beneficiaries currently getting services.

Per a May 29, 2020 provider alert, during the state of emergency AHCA will be reimbursing providers for telemedicine well-child visits provided to children older than 24 months through age 20. Providers are directed to actively work to schedule follow-up in-person visits to administer immunizations and other physical components of the exam which cannot be accomplished through telemedicine.   

The public charge rule will not be applied to immigrants’ use of Medicaid benefits for  COVID-19 testing and treatment.

Coverage of home and community-based waiver services (HCBS) - In response to the public emergency, Florida obtained approval from the federal government to make changes in HCBS waiver programs, including the Long Term Care and Developmental Disabilities programs. The changes are effective retroactively from January 27, 2020 to January 26, 2021. Details can be found here. They include, but are not limited to:

  • permitting virtual evaluations, assessments and care planning meetings in lieu of face to face meetings and use of electronic signatures;
  • lifting service limits in order to address health and welfare issues of enrollees;
  • adjusting service prior authorization requirements;
  • temporarily expanding the settings where services can be provided;  
  • allowing payments for support services provided to enrollees in hospital or short- term institutional settings; and
  • prohibiting visitors in certain residential settings to minimize the spread of infection.

A note on COVID-19 testing for the uninsured. Florida has not opted to receive 100 percent federal Medicaid funding for COVID-19 testing of people without health insurance. Thus Floridians must look to an uneven patchwork of free testing resources scattered around the state. AHCA advises that uninsured people may receive free testing from their county health department or a federally qualified health center and that “many communities provide testing for free for individuals who do not have insurance. Please click here to find a test site in your area. Uninsured individuals should ask before the test whether testing is free of charge."

Managed care open enrollment has started. Statewide Medicaid Managed Care program open enrollment has started as of October 1. Open enrollment happens once a year with the timing based on the region in which an enrollee lives. During this time Medicaid enrollees can change their plans. Open enrollment information and schedules can be found here.

CHILD NUTRITION PROGRAMS

School children in distance learning still eligible for free or reduced cost meals. Students in distance learning for  2020-21 can still receive school meals through the National School Lunch Program if they are eligible. The student or parent/guardian may pick up meals at the school but should contact their school for more information.

For a list of current child nutrition program waivers for Florida from USDA, go here. 


WIC

DOH attains waiver allowing remote issuance: Department of Health (DOH) obtained a waiver of the requirement that participants pick up their EBT cards in person at recertification or during nutritional education appointments.

WIC participants allowed to substitute certain food: Under a waiver from USDA, WIC participants in Florida are allowed to substitute milk of any available fat content and whole wheat or whole grain bread in package sizes up to 24 oz. when 16 oz. packages are unavailable.

USDA waived physical presence requirements: Although the scope and logistics are unclear at this time, USDA has given DOH permission to waive the requirement that persons be physically present at each certification or recertification determination in order to determine eligibility under the program. through May 31, 2020. 

USDA extends certification periods through May 31, 2020, for some participants.

For a list of current WIC waivers for Florida from USDA, go here. 

TANF

HHS provides guidance. HHS has issued guidance on the flexibilities in TANF to respond to COVID-19.

DCF has waived TANF work requirements through October 2020.

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