September 20, 2023
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recently concluded a series of listening sessions about the municipal General Assistance (GA) Program. Developed as a safety net program of last resort over 40 years ago, it is administered by municipalities and Tribes and overseen by DHHS, which reimburses 70 percent of eligible costs. Assistance is provided to eligible individuals by voucher for basic needs such as food, housing, and medication.
Maine is one of 25 states that operate a GA program and states vary significantly in how they structure this support. Because of unfunded policy changes in recent years, including PL 2016, Ch. 515 which expanded the definition of a qualifying emergency to include homelessness, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Maine communities, spending on the GA program has increased precipitously (see graphic) without a permanent increase in the program’s $10 million in state funding.
To address needs in the current fiscal year through June 2024, the biennial budget passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Mills includes $7.5 million to reimburse municipalities for recent, high GA costs. The budget also includes a one-time, lump-sum supplemental GA payment to municipalities of $8.5 million, to be allocated to municipalities based on their past GA claims in recognition of unusually high costs in the wake of the pandemic and as a bridge to future reform of the GA program.
To develop a roadmap for sustainability and program improvements in future years the Department engaged roughly 20 municipalities, 15 advocacy and community-based organizations, and over 50 GA recipients in 90-minute listening sessions over the spring and summer to solicit feedback on the program. In total, over 100 individuals and entities responded either by attending or submitting written comments.
Participants were encouraged to share feedback about their experience with the GA program, what is working, what needs improvement, and any recommendations for policy and program change. Several common themes and participant recommendations emerged from the discussions and are outlined in the General Assistance Listening Sessions Summary Report (PDF). Some suggestions for improvement include, but are not limited to:
- Creating an online database to increase effectiveness, coordination, transparency, and program integrity
- Bolstering programmatic training, as well as trauma-informed, cultural competency training for those who assist individuals with the GA program
- Increasing collaboration among the state, municipalities, and Community Based Organizations (CBOs) to streamline the process for everyone
- Making eligibility guidance more clear
Participants agreed both on the importance of GA in meeting short-term, emergency needs of Maine residents and the need to ensure that GA can function effectively and efficiently.
The Department is currently reviewing the policy suggestions that emerged from this process.