As an advocate at CCLP Lyz works to increase food security for Colorado residents, coordinating organizational efforts with partners to create a responsive through-line from community needs to policy solutions.

Mar 10, 2022

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SNAP report findings, part two: The hearing process

by | Mar 10, 2022

Last week, we discussed some important impacts of the SNAP hearing process here in Colorado. This week we will review the findings from CCLP’s report, Barriers, Errors, and Due Process Denied, that outline the ways in which the hearing process is difficult to navigate and does not work well for those whom the system is intended to benefit. And the stakes are high. Claims can result in loss or reduction of SNAP dollars, or obligations to pay back anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. Convictions of intentional program violations (IPVs) can result in disqualification from future benefits — from a year, up to an entire lifetime.

Very few beneficiaries utilize the hearing process to dispute claims

As we alluded to in the report, the hearing process exists because states are required to provide due process of the law before depriving beneficiaries of their public benefits. The hearing process—the opportunity to be heard, confront witnesses, and present evidence in defense—is a constitutional right of all beneficiaries.

When a beneficiary wishes to dispute an overpayment claim, they have the right to request a fair hearing, to have an administrative law judge review the evidence of the claim. Similarly, when a beneficiary is accused of an intentional program violation (IPV), they have the right to appear at an administrative disqualification hearing to defend themselves. However, our research found that very few who are eligible for a hearing actually make it front of an administrative judge.

SNAP applicants and recipients utilize the appeals process in only a small fraction of the cases where an appeal may be justified. An appeal can be requested whenever benefits are denied, reduced, terminated, or an overpayment is alleged. In 2019, 65,000 applicants were denied benefits, 39,000 recipients’ benefits were reduced or terminated, and 7,516 overpayment claims were initiated. And yet only 262 fair hearings were held. The exact reason why so few request hearings is still unknown, but we know that clear and comprehensible notices are vitally important. CCLP and partners have found notices contain confusing and sometimes inaccurate information that complicates the process for beneficiaries.

Of those who requested a fair hearing to dispute a county decision, more than half ultimately withdrew their request to be heard. While 262 fair hearings were held in 2019, an astonishing 320 requests were withdrawn before a hearing could even take place. Some requests may be withdrawn because the dispute with the county decision has been resolved; however, not enough is known about the circumstances that lead to such a high rate of withdrawal.

On the IPV side, a large proportion of individuals facing disqualification from the program end up waiving their right to a hearing. More than 65% of beneficiaries accused of intentionally violating SNAP rules sign a document that not only waives their right to be heard by an administrative law judge but will also disqualify them from the program for at least one year, while possibly placing them on the hook for repaying the state for any resultant overpayments.

SNAP advocates are rightfully alarmed by these numbers, especially as they compare to national averages. Nationally, fewer than 45% of all beneficiaries accused of intentionally violating the program sign Administrative Disqualification Hearing (ADH) waivers.

Colorado beneficiaries lose at unusually high rates

When beneficiaries do exercise their constitutional right and make it to hearing, they unfortunately face a very low probability of success. Beneficiaries lose their cases at notably high rates in Colorado. Fewer than 8% of fair hearings end in favor of beneficiaries. The remaining 92% of beneficiaries who appeal a county decision either see their benefits reduced or terminated, or they must pay the state the overpayment amount they had contested. In comparison, beneficiaries across the country win their disputes at an average rate of 41% in fair hearings.

When beneficiaries face Administrative Disqualification Hearings (ADHs), they too lose at higher-than-average rates. The rate at which Coloradans prevail in ADHs, 7.6%, is lower than the national rate of 9.7%. While Colorado beneficiaries lose their disqualification hearings more often than national counterparts, they are also accused of intentional program violations at almost twice the rate of others across the country.

SNAP beneficiaries often face hearings without legal representation

Additionally concerning, and perhaps related, when beneficiaries participate in the SNAP hearing process, they almost always engage without the benefit of professional legal representation. 95% of 2019 hearing decisions reviewed by CCLP were pro se cases, where the beneficiaries represented themselves.

Administrative benefits cases are incredibly complex. It is exceedingly difficult for beneficiaries to navigate these complexities to successfully defend themselves. Colorado Legal Services, the only state-wide legal services provider, had only 65 attorneys in 2019 to serve 750,000 Coloradans who qualified for their services. Given the high stakes involved in SNAP administrative hearings, the lack of legal representation is particularly alarming.

Significant challenges call for systemic changes

The impacts of the SNAP administrative hearing process are vast and can be devastating for some. It is important to continue to craft a system that respects constitutional rights and levels the power dynamics to allow for a fair process. In order to improve outcomes, Colorado should increase funding for legal service providers who can represent recipients of public benefits, improve the resources for SNAP beneficiaries to make the appeal process more accessible for beneficiaries, and expand training for administrative law judges on to meaningfully engage with beneficiaries who are self-represented. In future articles we’ll explore in more detail the opportunities to improve the SNAP hearing process.

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