April 18, 2014

DHS preparing for possible federal government shut down

State officials who run welfare programs that are paid for federal funds are taking steps to prepare for a federal government shut-down. The Iowa Department of Human Services administers the government’s Medicaid program which provides health care coverage for low-income and disabled Iowans.

The agency also provides food assistance to tens of thousands of Iowans who qualify for what used to be called “food stamps.” Both of those programs are primarily funded with federal tax dollars. Charles Palmer, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, has been meeting with staff in the Iowa Department of Management to come up with a game plan for running those federally-funded programs.

“We’re trying to arrive at what our assumption would be in terms of the length of time of the shut-down. The last time it was three weeks, so we’re sort of working from that as a starting assumption,” Palmer says. “Of course, we’re hoping it doesn’t happen.” Iowans who receive food assistance grants will not be affected by the shut-down, according to Palmer.

“We’ll be o.k.,” Palmer says. “We’ll have a plan.” The state has begun to “draw down” some federal funds early as a stop-gap measure, according to Palmer. The crunch, though, might come for individual nurses and other health care providers who submit bills to the state after they’ve provided care to Medicaid patients.

“You have, in some cases, very small providers that need their money immediately for their cash flow,” Palmer says, “so there are a lot of implications.” But Palmer hopes to have come up with a plan that assures those folks are paid on time by filing the paperwork to get enough federal funding in advance.

“It’s a matter of making sure that those moneys are here, one way or another, so we can get through the period,” Palmer says. Palmer was actually the state agency’s director during the previous government shut-down in 1995 when Republicans in congress of congress clashed with then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, over federal spending levels.

“We figured out a way to get through it,” Palmer says of that time during the government shut-down a decade and a half ago. After 12 years away from the Iowa Department of Human Services, Governor Branstad asked Palmer to return this January to run the agency.