Affordable Care: Act One

iStock_000019472466Medium - webOn October 1, the nation’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) officially launched its initial phase – admittedly with some fits and starts – to enroll millions of uninsured Americans. While the majority of ACA news coverage has focused on the new insurance exchanges, one of the most promising aspects of the system relates to its treatment of Medicaid, the government program for low-income individuals who cannot afford health insurance.

On this front, New York State is leading the way. We are one of the 24 states to have taken advantage of the federal option to significantly expand Medicaid eligibility. Our State will now provide coverage with no premium and modest co-pays to individuals and families earning up to 138% of the poverty level – up from the former cut off of 100% for most people. This is a meaningful jump from $23,550 to $32,500 for a family of four. The federal government will pay for this expansion through 2016, and no less than 90 percent of costs in later years. In addition, people with incomes up to 400% of the poverty level who buy health insurance through the new Health Insurance Marketplace will receive premium subsidies on a sliding scale.

It is not surprising that New York State is taking full advantage of what the ACA has to offer: for over ten years, under consecutive administrations, the state has been a pioneer in eliminating barriers to health care coverage by streamlining eligibility criteria, eliminating unnecessary burdens such as proof of income and asset testing, and simplifying the application process. In fact, the ACA builds on many of these innovative previous reforms, and also helps New York implement its long-planned online Medicaid application system.

New York State has stepped up to the plate to help vulnerable populations get off the ranks of the uninsured, improving their health and the fiscal health of the state. Unfortunately, there are 26 other states in our nation that continue to trap their poor and low-income citizens in a limbo where they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to receive ACA subsidies.

There are an estimated 3 million uninsured New Yorkers who can potentially benefit from the ACA. The key provisions of the Act will take effect on January 1, 2014. Beginning now and into 2014, advocates for the poor and near poor must work together to make sure people are aware of the new law, informed of their options and enrolled in a plan. [Some tools to help understand and calculate subsidies are available here.] The Affordable Care Act is not a perfect law, and there will no doubt be difficulties ahead, and continuing inequities. But for now, let’s salute the ACA as a huge step forward for millions of people too long denied access to affordable health insurance.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

One comment on this post. Join the discussion.

Turning Five

first day of schoolThis week thousands of New York City five-year-olds strapped on their backpacks, clung tightly to their parents’ hands, took a big gulp, and became kindergarteners – a rite of passage that, while scary for some kids and bittersweet for most parents, is an exciting day of picture taking and pride. Sadly, this is not the case for too many low-income special needs students, whose parents find themselves up against a Department of Education that is pursuing policies that impede their children’s progress. For them, turning five and entering kindergarten often means the abrupt loss of many of the special education services and benefits that they received in pre-school.

I am not alone in being frustrated by the mindless bureaucracy and apparent indifference towards its special needs students shown by the New York City Department of Education. Parents of typically developing children have legitimate concerns about a range of issues, such as increasing reliance on high stakes testing, the lack of middle school choices, and the lack of planning for the impact of development on our neighborhood schools. But for poor families with special needs children, the stakes are even higher: it’s about a child’s access to education.

The problems are particularly acute for students making the critical transition from special-education pre-school to kindergarten. These “turning five” disabled students may have had the benefit of relatively robust and holistic support in their pre-school years: appropriate school placements, tutoring, therapeutic interventions and other supports to meet their individual needs. However, when they enter kindergarten, they are facing a host of obstacles. The DOE regularly terminates needed services for children entering kindergarten based on administrative convenience and unrelated to the needs of the child. This is despite the advice and recommendations of pre-school teachers, doctors, psychologists and other trained professionals who have worked with these students and know their needs. For example, in a recent NYLAG case, the DOE has terminated a turning-five autistic child’s one-to-one dedicated educator that the child needed to manage her severe behaviors as she transitioned into kindergarten. In another case, the DOE drastically reduced a turning-five child’s speech and language therapy simply because the kindergarten program could not provide more.

There are a limited number of attorneys, including the Special Education Unit at NYLAG, that provide free legal representation to see that low-income disabled children receive the appropriate public education, including necessary related services, to which they are legally entitled. When the DOE fails to do so, we represent parents at administrative hearings, and, where necessary, appeal to the State Review Office and federal court to secure DOE funding for an educational program in an appropriate non-public or private school that is able to address the student’s unique needs.

The State’s and City’s educational policies and practices impact not only the “turning five” population, they negatively affect all special needs students, at a time when the population of disabled children is continuing to rise.  Millions of dollars of taxpayer money are often wasted by the DOE in administrative hearings and appeals with the purpose of denying special needs children necessary educational programs and related services.  With a new administration about to get to work, let’s hope the DOE will make the changes necessary to ensure that all disabled children receive appropriate educations.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

No comments yet. Join the discussion.

Remembering 9/11, and Learning From It

9-11 Anniversary NYC Skyline

We all have memories of that day, some painfully personal because of loved ones lost — others shared and communal, like how blue the sky was, how searing the images of devastation. But perhaps the most important memory for me and others in the nonprofit sector, is learning firsthand about the extraordinarily long-term nature of disaster relief services. While the families of those murdered on 9/11 can never be made fully whole, it is important that we as advocates remain available to help them, no matter how long it takes.

It’s obvious that mobilizing an immediate response is the first step. To accomplish this, agencies need to be nimble and adaptable — with the flexibility to suddenly re-allocate resources in creative ways. For example, at NYLAG, we didn’t wait to be asked to help victims with their legal needs. Within 48 hours of 9/11, we had five of our attorneys sitting at a table near Ground Zero. Not even knowing what to expect, we immediately found ourselves helping victims’ family members navigate the maze of FEMA benefits and other emergency programs. Later on, we began seeing more employment issues related to workers compensation and pensions. Then came a surge in estate issues and family matters, such as custody and guardianship. We worked with many immigrants whose status was affected by the attack – and even now, 12 years later, we still have immigration cases pending for immigrant family members of victims.

In total, we helped over 2,000 individuals whose lives were impacted by the 2001 terrorist attacks. Nine years later, this experience enabled us to immediately launch a program to help New York’s Haitian immigrants in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti. Over the last three years, as temporary protected status was renewed for Haitians, NYLAG has continued to serve this vulnerable community. In addition to immigration matters, we are helping them access public benefits, address employment discrimination, and a host of related issues. And of course, in 2012, NYLAG became the largest provider of disaster legal services to victims of Superstorm Sandy. Eleven months later, we have only just scratched the surface of the legal assistance needed to help these clients rebuild their homes and their lives.

Today I sit within blocks of the Freedom Tower, a memorial to those we have lost, and a tribute to the strength and resilience of our city. As a public interest lawyer, I am proud that the lessons of 9/11 have made our agency stronger for the future, by teaching us to recognize that the needs after a disaster are both immediate and long-lasting. As a husband and a father, and a citizen of New York, I honor the memory of those who were lost, offer my support to all who still suffer, and feel so grateful for the many people I love and cherish in my life.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

No comments yet. Join the discussion.

Back-to-School: Putting Students Before Profits

For-Profit SchoolsAs our nation’s students begin returning to school this month, President Obama hit the road to talk about the plight of middle class Americans dealing with a host of economic challenges, among them the soaring cost of higher education. The President’s college affordability plans include making better use of online tools, and rewarding innovative ideas like a three-year bachelor’s degree. But his boldest idea is to create a new ratings system that will link a college’s eligibility for federal aid to how many of its students actually graduate, and how many successfully enter the job market – a move that he said, “won’t be popular with everyone – including some who’ve made higher education their business – but it’s past time that more of our colleges work better for the students they exist to serve.”

Those who have “made higher education their business” are for-profit colleges, whose profitability hinges on enrolling individuals who will qualify for federal student loans and grants, regardless of the educational benefit to the student. And their business is booming at our expense: in 2011, federal taxpayers invested $32 billion in companies that operate high-cost, low-value for-profit colleges – 25 percent of the entire federal student loan budget.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, there are hundreds of for-profit schools in New York State and almost two-thirds of them operate in the greater New York City area. NYLAG serves hundreds of clients a year who have attended for-profit schools. They are targeted because they are unemployed and underemployed, so desperate to believe that an education will translate into a good paycheck that they sign up without realizing they have taken on enormous debt in return for little if any valuable training or education. They soon realize that the programs are inadequate, with overcrowded classrooms, poor teachers and language barriers. Over 50 percent of students who enroll in for-profit schools drop out within four months. Those who do graduate find that their “education” does not lead to jobs: the unemployment rate among students who attended for-profit schools in 2008 and 2009 was 23 percent. And many of those who are employed are working at the same low-paying jobs they had before they attended school.

There is a pressing need for vigorous federal oversight, in coordination with major improvements at the State level, to ensure the integrity of federal student loan programs.  As President Obama said, “Just tinkering around the edges won’t be enough: To create a better bargain for the middle class, we have to fundamentally rethink about how higher education is paid for in this country. We’ve got to shake up the current system.”

There is no denying that those whose profits depend on maintaining the status quo will strongly oppose the President’s plan, as they have other efforts to condition a school’s participation in federal student loan programs on the success of its graduates.  Next month, the U.S. Department of Education will open a round of negotiated rulemaking, which brings together representatives from government and diverse interest groups to negotiate and reach a consensus on the terms of a proposed administrative rule.  In this case, the subject of the rulemaking is “gainful employment,” a regulation aimed at holding for-profit secondary schools accountable for the quality of their programs by monitoring the job outcomes of their students. NYLAG attorney Eileen Connor will represent legal aid organizations at the negotiating table.  We support a gainful employment regulation consistent with President Obama’s plan, which would cut off federal student aid to for-profit schools that do not meet minimum standards.  But it is imperative that improved regulations be backed by rigorous oversight of the program by federal and other agencies.

By improving oversight of for-profit schools, this administration could reclaim millions of taxpayer dollars that would be better invested in private and community colleges committed to their students’ success, not their profit margins. It could also create opportunities for poor and near poor students to receive a good education, earn a decent living, and join the ranks of the middle class.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

No comments yet. Join the discussion.

Hunger Games

When the House of Representatives left Washington last week to enjoy a long summer break, they left behind a ticking time bomb: a proposed $20 billion budget cut to the nation’s food stamp program (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), which would slash by 25% the food that poor families depend on for their very survival.

This is a particularly egregious case of legislative maneuvering with utter disregard for the harm that will come to the more than 5 million people who will lose their food benefits. Those who say that SNAP is rife with fraud, or that many beneficiaries are not truly in need of assistance, are playing politics, not statesmanship. According to Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity:

  • 76% of SNAP households include a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. These vulnerable households receive 83% of all SNAP benefits.
  • 83% of SNAP households have gross incomes at or below 100% of the federal poverty level ($19,530 for a family of three), and these households receive 91% of all SNAP benefits.
  • SNAP beneficiaries are already facing a cut to their benefits in November when an increase that went into effect as a part of the 2009 federal stimulus package expires.

While the cost of administering the food stamp program has risen in recent years, these increases are not without reason. During the 1990s and 2000s local governments made a huge push to decrease the stigma associated with food stamps as a form of welfare, and to make the enrollment process easier. In a recent article in the Austin Statesman, Kathy Green, Director of Advocacy and Public Policy at the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas writes, “It is only shocking that SNAP participation grew by 70% from 2006 to 2011 if you fail to mention that the ranks of the unemployed grew by 94% over the same period.” It is also important to note that while lawmakers decry the expense of the program, most recipients receive a very small stipend – on average $134 per month, or less than $1.50 per meal.

Here in New York, an estimated one-third of residents struggle to feed themselves and their families. More than 474,000 children in New York City””about one in four””face the daily reality of hunger. A recent study by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger found that one in ten elderly New Yorkers do not get enough to eat. And even with active SNAP participation, one in five children relies on a soup kitchen or food pantry for food. At NYLAG, our attorneys and financial counselors rely on SNAP as one tool in their arsenal to help low-income clients. When working with a victim of domestic violence, a cancer patient, or a disabled veteran, food stamps are an important safety net intervention that can help a vulnerable client meet his or her basic needs.

Hunger is the face of poverty, and its impact is profound. Poor nutrition has serious implications for children, whose future physical and mental health, academic achievement, and economic productivity all depend on eating well and regularly. A 2011 Senate Subcommittee report on Primary Health and Aging found that approximately 50% of all health conditions impacting older Americans are directly connected to a lack of nutrients. Whatever the age group, persistent hunger leads to poor health, chronic disease, and expensive medical interventions that we all pay for in the end.

The hunger crisis in our country is no game, and the lawmakers out to decimate SNAP are not just playing politics, they are playing with people’s lives.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

No comments yet. Join the discussion.

Thoughts on Philanthropy

Posted on

People are buzzing about Peter Buffett’s recent New York Times Op-Ed, which takes a thought-provoking look at the failures of the “charitable-industrial complex” in solving our biggest global challenges.

New York TimesOne of Mr. Buffett’s most provocative observations is that philanthropy has become a self-perpetuating growth industry because government, businesses and nonprofits are “all searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.” I take his point. Too many philanthropic and government dollars are spent fixing problems that government created in the first place. Those of us in the civil legal services world have been tackling this issue for decades. For example, government funding supports our health law practice, in which NYLAG attorneys spend a lot of time appealing denials of Medicare/Medicaid benefits for clients who need and are legally entitled to them. If our healthcare system was in better shape, we would not need to intervene. Similarly, we have seen a huge need for civil legal services in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, driven in part by limitations in the government”˜s system for reimbursing victims of natural disasters. By correcting flaws in these systems at the source, we could alleviate suffering and become more efficient in the process.

Mr. Buffett also questions whether philanthropy’s role as today’s “it” vehicle for fixing the world’s ills, arm-in-arm with the application of business principles like “Return on Investment,” is really valid. His candor is wonderful, and he forces us to think about which methods of measurement can and cannot be applied to alleviating injustice and human suffering. While I agree with many of his points, I do think that a business perspective and solid metrics are valuable tools to create effective public-private philanthropy. It is important that we find a common language to understand why some programs are more effective than others. Entities like the Robin Hood Foundation and our own Mayor Michael Bloomberg are great role models for doing good, and doing it based on business models of measured growth, accountability and innovation.

Mr. Buffett ends his Op-Ed by admitting that he is not really calling for an end to capitalism to solve the problems of inequity and poverty, he just wants it leavened with a good dose of “humanism.” In fact, he uses the language of finance to envision an imaginative new beginning: “Foundation dollars should be the best ”˜risk capital’ out there.” From my perspective, one way to do this is to recognize that civil legal services bring enormous value to major poverty-fighting initiatives. Building free legal services into the ground floor of these programs can prevent a host of problems from appearing down the road, dramatically increasing the impact of health, welfare, employment and other efforts.

Since capitalism isn’t dead, I might add that from an investment standpoint, civil legal services deliver a return on investment of six dollars for every one dollar spent. More importantly, though, at the human level, these services can keep the roof over a vulnerable family’s heads, put food on their table, and provide them with access to life-saving healthcare.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

No comments yet. Join the discussion.

Refreshing News on a Hot Day

Posted on
summer heat - blog image

On another sweltering July day, as media reports swirled about stalemates in Washington, turbulence in the Middle East, and a controversial jury decision in Florida, one piece of good news went underreported. This past Monday, President Obama welcomed former President George H.W. Bush back to the White House to celebrate the Points of Light Foundation, an organization created by Mr. Bush in 1989 to honor volunteer service. The day got even better when Obama announced the creation of a new federal task force to find more ways to widen public and private volunteerism toward tackling national priorities.

Volunteerism is a uniquely American pastime. In the 24 years since Points of Light’s founding, the number of Americans who volunteer has increased by more than 60 per cent. Equally impressive is the fact that both teens and older Americans are now 40 percent more likely to volunteer than these same age groups were in 1989.

Nowhere is the volunteer spirit more evident than in the legal profession, where the concept of “pro bono” has become central to the life of a lawyer. New York broke new ground in 2012, when Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced that 50 hours of pro bono service will now be a requirement for admission to the New York State Bar. Taking it one step further, the Chief Judge has also actively promoted an initiative that would encourage every licensed attorney to perform 50 hours of pro bono service annually, and would require that they report their pro bono work as part of the bi-annual reregistration process. Both measures are designed to help address the needs of the poor by increasing the availability of the free legal services throughout the State.

NYLAG could not exist without our volunteers. If you walk through our offices, you will see volunteer attorneys, law students, college and even high school students working together, alongside NYLAG’s paid professional staff.  In partnership with law schools, we run intensive year-long clinics for law students. Supervised and mentored by NYLAG attorneys, these students advocate on behalf of clients while gaining practical legal skills. Every year, over 800 volunteers donate more than 100,000 hours to NYLAG, vastly expanding our ability to serve clients. We simply could not serve 50,000 people each year without them.

The heat wave is a great excuse to give a little back to the most vulnerable among us. You can help by donating your time to a local nonprofit that helps people find shelter from the blistering heat, or one that provides access to the nutritional and health care services they need to stay well. Check in on your elderly neighbors to make sure they have adequate air-conditioning, or that they  can get to another location, such as an NYC Cooling Center, if a/c is not available at home. Maybe keep a few extra bottles of water in your bag for an especially wilted fellow subway traveler. Whatever you do, you’ll feel refreshed.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

No comments yet. Join the discussion.

A Good Week in Washington

Posted on

Yesterday, the United States Senate voted to approve legislation that would overhaul the nation’s immigration policies, creating a path to citizenship for over 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. The historic 68-32 vote to approve the Gang of Eight’s immigration reform bill marks a significant step for comprehensive immigration reform, which NYLAG has long supported. The mere fact that 14 Republicans reached across the aisle to pass this bill is telling of our lawmakers’ abilities to collaborate across party lines. NYLAG applauds the bipartisan spirit of the Senate, and it is my hope that the House of Representatives will follow the Senate’s example. I am especially proud of New York’s Senator Schumer for negotiating such a comprehensive measure.

The bill itself, as I have mentioned in previous posts, contains many new provisions that early on, NYLAG advocated for through targeted communications with numerous elected officials. Click here to view NYLAG’s CIR Framework.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

No comments yet. Join the discussion.

One Year Later: Time to Build on DACA’s Success

Posted on

June 15th, marks the one-year anniversary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a landmark program initiated by President Obama to grant undocumented young immigrants relief from deportation and the opportunity to obtain employment and an education. For many DACA grantees, this has been a chance to step out of the shadows and better their lives.

NYLAG had long advocated the granting of deferred action status to undocumented youth, and worked closely with the Administration and elected officials to make the new directive a reality. Before the President’s pen was dry, NYLAG had begun a community outreach campaign, getting the word out through fliers, publicity, social media, and a designated DACA Hotline – and conducting scores of meetings and workshops to educate and advise potential DACA applicants and their parents. We have so far reached out to thousands of people, advised more than 1,100 individuals, and assisted over 400 people in applying for DACA, with most resulting in approval. NYLAG has also taken on particularly complex cases, such as representing individuals in removal proceedings. In addition, we screen all applicants and their families for all other forms of immigration relief, and in the process often find alternative avenues by which to legalize a client’s status. Once applicants obtain employment authorization, NYLAG is able to refer them to a unique program that helps put underserved individuals facing serious barriers to employment on the path to meaningful, sustainable careers.

The one-year anniversary of DACA gives us the chance to look back at the success of the program and evaluate it, especially now, as a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which includes an expedited path to citizenship for young DREAMers, makes its way through Congress.

No doubt, DACA is a great achievement and a great step forward, but building on what we have learned, NYLAG’s immigration attorneys have identified a number of ways that the program could be streamlined and made more accessible to eligible young people, including the following:

Temporary Protected Status: A large segment of youth potentially eligible for DACA was inadvertently barred from applying for these benefits because of their Temporary Protected Status (TPS). This includes those who came to the U.S. from Haiti after the earthquake, who cannot apply for DACA because they hold TPS. NYLAG believes this should be changed so that TPS does not prevent them from applying. We have lobbied directly with Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and members of Congress; and created an online petition that has generated 1,500 signatures. (Click here to sign.)

Education: NYLAG attorneys frequently encounter young people with undocumented parents who are afraid of applying for DACA because they do not want their parents to be discovered and subjected to removal proceedings. NYLAG has been working to educate families about DACA so they know it will not affect their status, and we urge other advocacy and community organizations to join us in this critical effort.

Age limits: NYLAG believes the DACA age limit should be expanded or done away with altogether. The present requirement that applicants be under 31 years of age as of June 15, 2012 is arbitrary and disqualifies a great many candidates who would be otherwise eligible. We would have the rule amended to make eligible anyone who was under 16 years of age at the time of entry and who satisfies all other DACA requirements.

Immigration fraud: Uninformed immigrants have been scammed out of thousands of dollars with false promises of status and false documents. As comprehensive federal immigration reform moves forward, immigrants must be aware of those trying to take advantage of them. We applaud the efforts of USCIS to combat immigration fraud and we encourage the further development of those initiatives. NYLAG will also continue to educate and assist New Yorkers in avoiding immigration fraud.

DACA documents: The documentation requirements for DACA are unnecessarily strict and unbending – for instance, the rigid requirements of direct evidence of continuous residence in the United States since 2007, which many undocumented individuals who have lived under the radar for many years simply do not possess.

These relatively simple steps will go a long way toward fulfilling the promise of countless young immigrants poised to contribute their talent, energy and commitment to the country they love.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

No comments yet. Join the discussion.

Outrage

Posted on

I would like to take this opportunity to express my grief and outrage over the recent murder of Marc Carson and the continuing increase in bias-related attacks against members of the LGBT community. It is unacceptable that this month alone there have been six attacks. Unfortunately, anti-LGBT violence too often goes unreported, so that number is most likely even higher.

Everyone deserves the right to feel safe in expressing their sexual orientation and gender identity without fear of harassment or physical assault. This is a reminder that we still have a long way to go.

Hatred and intolerance against any group of people is done to silence those who are marginalized in our society. We cannot be silent, about this hate crime, or any other.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

No comments yet. Join the discussion.