Highlights of New Federal Budget
Just before Christmas both houses of Congress passed a $1.7 trillion budget to fund the government through Sept. 30 to ensure that essential programs are stable. These include:
- Reforming the Electoral Count Act
- A 30% increase in child care subsidies
- Summer meals for children
- Increased funding for homelessness grants, utility assistance, and the EPA
Passed with bipartisan support – 18 Republican votes in the Senate and 9 in the House of Representatives – the budget includes major increases for child care, Pell grants, child nutrition, and housing security. The Episcopal Public Policy Network offers you a link to thank your Senators and member of Congress. But Congress failed to protect Dreamers and Afghan evacuees, and did not act to expand the Child Tax credit to the lowest income families who need it most. The pandemic-based child tax credit expansion which expired last December was credited with an extraordinary drop in the child poverty rate in the US. Here’s a first look at key elements in the budget relevant to our congregations’ ministries for vulnerable people:
- Protecting voters: The omnibus bill includes reforms removing ambiguities in the 19th Century Electoral Count Act to help prevent a recurrence of the Jan. 6 crisis. The reform bill affirms that the Vice President’s role in certifying Electoral College votes is purely ceremonial. The threshold for contesting a state’s electors is raised from one member of each chamber of Congress to 1/5 of the members, and the law clarifies the narrow grounds on which that objection can be raised or sustained.
- Child Care subsidies and early childhood education: The pandemic drove many child care providers out of business. Without subsides the cost of child care takes a giant bite out of the wages of low-income working parents. The budget increases child care funding by 30% to $8 billion. The allocation for Head Start early childhood education is $12 billion, up 8.6%.
- Child nutrition: Starting in summer of 2024, children eligible for free or reduced school meals will receive $40/month on an EBT card to help their families feed them over the summer. Rural families will be able to pick up 10 meals at a time rather than coming to a feeding center each day. This will make logistics far easier and less expensive for families and providers.
- Medicaid: During the pandemic, states were forbidden to drop families from Medicaid. Starting April 1, they can review eligibility and dis-enroll families who no longer qualify. Losing Medicaid qualifies as a life change opening a special enrollment period for Affordable Care Act plans. Make sure the emergency assistance programs your church supports are briefed on this option so they can connect families to certified assisters who can help them find ACA plans under the more generous subsidies which have been extended for two more years. I’ll prepare a flyer about this in the spring. Under the spending bill, children will receive 12 months continuous coverage under Medicaid and CHIP, and states can offer 12 months post-partum coverage to mothers.
- Homeless assistance grants increase 13%.
- Utility assistance: the bill includes $5 billion for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, part of the largest appropriation ever for this assistance. Electricity, natural gas, and home heating oil costs have soared. Connect people to your local Community Action Agency to apply.
- Funding for the EPA rose $576 million. I don’t know yet whether environmental appropriations are sufficient to fully implement the climate mitigation and resilience programs in the Inflation Reduction Act – stay tuned.
Middle class now eligible for ACA subsidies, but Jan. 15 is the last date to enroll
The Inflation Reduction Act extended the pandemic expansion of health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, and this includes people who make over 400% of the Federal Poverty Level, capping their premiums at no more than 8.5% of adjusted gross income. This could save middle class families thousands of dollars a year. You can easily apply online at Healthcare.gov, get an immediate determination of how much monthly subsidy you qualify for to reduce your premium, and also learn if you qualify for additional savings to lower your deductible and out-of-pocket costs. The “Find Local Help” link at Healthcare.gov gives you contact information for free assisters in your community who are trained on the Marketplace and must give you unbiased help. You can also apply over the phone at 1-800-318-2596, but doing the application online allows you to see plans and prices side by side.
The Kaiser Family Foundation has a calculator that helps estimate how much you would save. Here is an example they provided last summer of the savings for a couple making $70,000 a year. “In the absence of these enhanced subsidies, a 60-year-old couple with an income of $70,000 would have had to pay $1,859 per month (or $22,307 over the course of 2022) for a full-price silver plan.” Now, with the enhanced subsidies, “the same couple currently pays $496 per month (or $5,950 over the course of the year), and would continue to pay a similar amount under the Inflation Reduction Act. …this older middle-income couple will save over $16,000 per year.”
Ohioans with annual incomes below 138 percent of the federal poverty limit are eligible for Medicaid, which is free. Many people making more than that will find plans with zero monthly premiums.
To complete the application, you’ll need an estimate of your household’s adjusted gross income (AGI) for 2023, and can use your 2022 income as a basis for that. Remember that if you are self-employed, your AGI is your net income after business expenses. Healthcare.gov allows you to enter your preferred medical providers and your prescriptions to find out if they are covered by the plans you are considering. You can also filker for how much health care you expect to need in order to get an estimate of annual costs for each plan, including your monthly premium and out-of-pocket costs. That way you can see what your best choice is financially: it’s not always the lowest premium, because bronze plans only cover 60% of eligible costs up to the annual out-of-pocket maximum. If you are eligible for cost-sharing reductions, these are only activated if you choose a silver plan. Cost-sharing raises the actuarial value of the plan.
Ariel Miller volunteered for eight years as a certified application counselor helping Ohioans enroll in Medicaid and Marketplace plans.
Advocacy briefings are compiled by Ariel Miller, a longtime community advocate and member of Ascension & Holy Trinity, Wyoming. Connect with her at email@example.com