Consumer Advocates Offer Recommendations to PUCO Rules

Recently, Ohio residential consumer advocates were invited by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO to file comments of on the rules governing the connection, disconnection and reconnection of gas and electric service and Ohio’s low income assistance program the Percentage of Income Payment program Plus (PIPP Plus) as part of the PUCO’s five-year review. Collectively, the consumer advocates are the only voice for everyday residential consumers before the PUCO, who makes and enforces rules regarding: utility security deposits, appropriate proof of consumer creditworthiness, and the timing and manner of shut off notices. This case is the only place where advocates can make recommendations on behalf of low- income customers who depend on the PIPP Plus program to get and/or remain connected to their utility to have heat and lights. These rules affect over 7 million customers who get gas or electric utility service from one of the regulated utilities in Ohio such as Duke, First Energy, AEP, or Columbia Gas, to name a few.

Consumer advocates urged the adoption of rules or changes to the rules in order to protect customers and maintain service without undue harm to utilities. In addition, the advocates made recommendations to improve PIPP Plus, which makes electric and gas payments affordable for low income Ohioans. The PIPP Plus program was created almost 3 years ago when the “Plus” was added to the existing PIPP program to provide arrearage forgiveness to many residents who had built up significant utility debt. The consumer advocates made the following recommendations for the Credit and Connection rules:

  •  Reduce utilities’ use of Social Security numbers to reduce the risk of identity theft
  •    Make security deposit requirements reasonable and affordable
  •  Connect service within a reasonable time after a request for service has been made

Similarly, the advocates also offered suggestions when disconnection or reconnection of service is an issue:

  •   Forbid landlords from using utility shut-offs to force tenants to move
  •  Require reconnection soon after payment is received if service is disconnected for nonpayment
  •   Make tenants liable only for service for the times that they actually rent and occupy a unit
  •   Create uniform rules and allow online access to forms for  both residents with health emergencies and their healthcare providers to request temporary waivers of payment during health emergencies

 This is only a sample of suggestions made by the consumer advocates.  Click here and here to see all of the topics covered.  Use this link to see the current rules and the rule changes proposed by the Staff of the PUCO.

 As mentioned previously, consumer advocates also made numerous recommendations to improve the PIPP Plus program, such as:

  •  Maintain a hardship exemption to waive the $10 minimum payment for up to six months
  •  Allow customers the benefits of arrearage forgiveness if they fully or partially pay in advance
  •  Extend the time periods for customers cycling off PIPP Plus (for whatever reason) to provide payment schedules that are reasonable and affordable
  • Allow the transfer of delinquent accounts to a PIPP Plus account
  •  Provide a more expansive definition of “on-time payment.”

 Our positive recommendations will only improve the current rules, and we hope that the PUCO agrees and adopts many of these recommendations. The consumer advocates who jointly submitted comments include:  the Ohio Poverty Law Center (OPLC) as well as most of the legal aid programs in Ohio, the Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy (OPAE), the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel (OCC), the Citizens’ Coalition, the Coalition of Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO), the Ohio Association of Area Agencies on Aging (OAAA), the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies (OCAA), and the Ohio Association of Food Banks.

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OPLC releases Health Care and Uncompensated Care Fact Sheets for Ohio Counties

OPLC releases Health Care and Uncompensated Care Fact Sheets for Ohio Counties

The Ohio Poverty Law Center recently developed uncompensated care and Medicaid fact sheets for each of Ohio’s 88 counties to illustrate the benefits of expanding Medicaid on local economies. For more than a year, Ohio has been debating whether to expand Medicaid to Ohioans up to 138% of the federal poverty level.  That expansion would provide access to health care for 300,000 very low-income Ohioans who are currently uninsured and have little or no access to health care.

 For each county, the fact sheets include:

  • the number of uninsured adults living in the county
  • the number of uninsured adults living in the county with incomes at or below 138% of the federal poverty level  who would be eligible for Medicaid under an expansion
  • the current number of Medicaid recipients living in the county
  • the amount of uncompensated care provided by hospitals

This information illustrates the economic benefits Medicaid expansion would have on local economies by (1) reducing medical debt so that low-income patients and their families can use their scarce resources for other necessities such as food and housing, (2) dramatically reducing cost shifting by hospitals for care provided to uninsured patients, and (3) pumping millions of dollars into county economies and billions of dollars into the state’s economy via Medicaid payments to hospitals, physicians and other health care providers.

For a full set of the county fact sheets, visit: http://www.ohiopovertylawcenter.org/county-medicaid-expansion-fact-sheets

Studies have found that every $1.00 of Medicaid spending generates about $3.15 of economic activity so that this multiplier effect will help to create even more new jobs and businesses in Ohio’s counties.  One such study is:  R Greenbaum and A Desai. Uneven Burden: Economic analysis of Medicaid expenditure changes in Ohio. The Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio 2003.     http://www.ppm.ohio-state.edu/ppm/Medicaid.pdf.

Of course, the benefits of expanding Medicaid go far beyond mere dollars and cents.  Improved health status, extended life expectancy, expanded employability, greater family stability and other personal and societal benefits will eventually dwarf the economic impacts, but the economic benefits to the state and each of Ohio’s counties should persuade policy makers who only focus on the bottom line too support expanding Medicaid.

Please share this information with friends and neighbors and encourage everyone to contact their legislators to ask them to support expanding Medicaid in Ohio to the fullest extent

Let us all hope that Ohio takes the steps to expand Medicaid soon so that all Ohioans and our local and state economies can enjoy the benefits beginning in January 2014.

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Advocates Improve Unemployment Compensation Bill for Ohio Workers

The Ohio General Assembly has passed new unemployment compensation legislation, House Bill 2 (HB 2), and Governor Kasich signed HB 2 on July 11, 2013.  It becomes law 90 days after the Governor’s signature, but certain requirements take effect at a later date. As a result of advocacy by Mike Smalz (Ohio Poverty Law center), Hannah Halbert (Policy Matters) and the Ohio Employment Lawyers Association (OELA), the final version of HB 2 represents a huge improvement over the bill as it was introduced.

 As introduced, HB 2—sponsored by Representative Tim Derickson—required all unemployment compensation applicants to personally “register” on the OhioMeansJobs website as a precondition to receiving any unemployment benefits. (OhioMeansJobs is the exclusive job placement service for Ohio’s “one stop” employment assistance centers.)  “Registration” involved posting a complete résumé.  In addition, every week unemployment claimants would receive an email from OhioMeansJobs listing appropriate job matches.  The bill also required everyone to “report” to their local One Stop office beginning in their eighth consecutive week of claiming unemployment benefits.

 Mike Smalz and Hannah Halbert met several times with the bill’s sponsor, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS),  and the Governor’s Office to discuss a number of issues of concern.  Mike and Hannah pointed out that some low-income unemployed individuals do not have a computer or reasonable access to the Internet, or are computer-illiterate.  Other individuals face disability- or language-related barriers.  Mike also cited an April 6, 2013 U.S. Department of Labor Finding determining that Florida’s  unemployment compensation online application, registration and reporting requirements violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VI (language discrimination) and other federal civil rights laws.

Representative Derickson, ODJFS and Senate Republicans agreed to amend several key provisions of the bill.  As a result, final Sub. HB 2 provides:

 —  Individuals may register either online or by phone.  People who file their unemployment compensation applications by phone will also “register” by phone: the information they provide over the phone will generate a basic résumé that will be automatically be posted on the OhioMeansJobs website, although claimants may later be required to update or expand their résumé.

—  Individuals who lack a personal email account will receive telephone calls from ODJFS informing them of their weekly OhioMeansJobs job matches.  Claimants will not be required to pursue those specific job matches so long as they make the required number of weekly job searches.

—  The following categories of persons who have significant “barriers” are exempt from the registration requirement: individuals who are legally or physically unable to use a computer or who have a limited ability to read, write, speak, or understand a language in which OhioMeansJobs is available.

—  Individuals who are temporarily laid off as part of a mass lay-off or plant closing, or who are attending an ODJFS-approved training course, or who are a member of a union that refers members to jobs through its labor referral or placement system are also exempt from the “actively seeking work” and registration requirements.

—  Finally, the requirement that claimants “report” to their local One Stop office beginning in their eighth week after first filing for unemployment benefits may be accomplished by in-person, online, or telephone contacts, depending on ODJFS policies and the claimant’s particular circumstances.

 Sub. HB 2, in its final version, is a victory for Ohio’s unemployed workers and a far better outcome than what has happened in other states where conservative governors and legislators have pushed through legislation creating major hurdles to getting unemployment benefits or reducing the amount or duration of unemployment benefits.

written by Mike Smalz

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Ohio’s Proposed Debt Settlement Legislation Bad Policy for Ohio’s Consumers

Recently, Representative Lou Terhar introduced HB 173 in the Ohio House. The bill purports “to regulate the for-profit debt settlement industry in Ohio.” Although this industry needs significant regulatory reforms, the proposed modifications of state law would offer mostly redundant regulation while removing fees caps that protect Ohio’ s citizens. The bill that would emerge is bad for Ohio consumers and bad public policy for Ohio, and Ohioans should urge their representatives to just say “no” to HB 173.

Debt settlement companies attract customers through marketing campaigns designed to give debt-burdened consumers the false impression that their services will allow individuals to settle their outstanding debts at substantial discounts.

In practice, however, these companies can leave consumers with higher debt loads and adverse court judgments, while charging exorbitant fees. In doing so, debt settlement companies prey on Ohio’s impoverished citizens, many of whom have been forced to  rely on their credit cards as a bridge between their income and needs in desperate economic times.  The typical for-profit debt settlement business model advises debtors who enroll in a plan to stop paying their credit card bills and instead set aside money before negotiations with creditors begin.  Late fees and penalty interest rates mount as a result, leaving the consumer with a larger debt than when they started.  Additionally, entering a plan is no guarantee that collection activities will stop; often creditor harassment and law suits continue.

Studies show that only a small minority of debts are actually settled by the companies in this industry. Even the American Fair Credit Council, the debt settlement industry’s trade association, has admitted that 66% of clients will not see even 75% of their debts settled. Additionally, the industry fails to include fees and the tax consequences of debt forgiveness in the analysis of debtor savings, giving an incomplete picture of the “benefits” of for-profit debt settlement plans.  Because of these issues, it is unsurprising that the Better Business Bureau has called the industry “inherently problematic,” and the Office of the Comptroller of the currency has charged that “this is not a legitimate method of satisfying debts.”

Currently, Federal Trade Commission rules ban the most abusive practice common to the debt settlement industry: charging advance fees. Additionally, certain disclosures must be made to potential customers regarding the nature of the debt settlement company’s business practices and the consequences of entering a plan. Existing Ohio law puts fee caps on what this industry can charge for its services, and gives debtors who are victimized by abusive practices claims for relief under the Consumer Sales Practices Act.

HB 173, if enacted, will codify many of the FTC’s restrictions into Ohio law. However, caps on fees are abolished by the proposed bill.  With such provisions, HB 173 is an example of “faux reform” for the citizens of Ohio. The proposed regulations are already in place, and the debt settlement industry will have greater freedom to charge astronomical fees.  This should come as no surprise, given that the bill is backed by the American Fair Credit Council, the debt settlement industry’s trade association. The support of this organization should be telling for Ohio citizens who seek to restrain the harmful practices of debt settlement companies. For these reasons, Ohioans should urge their representatives to vote “no” on HB 173.

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Ohio At A Cross Roads: Medicaid Expansion

Ohio At A Cross Roads: Medicaid Expansion

The Ohio General Assembly and Governor Kasich are at odds over Medicaid expansion as anticipated by the Affordable Care Act.

The Governor, a conservative Republican, included a Medicaid expansion in the state budget for all Ohioans with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level. This is the right thing to do for Ohioans who are now uninsured and cannot obtain the care they need to become, or remain, healthy. It is also the right thing to do to help Ohioans become more employable so they can be self-sufficient and stable. It is also the right thing to do for the state’s economy and budget.

Expanding access to health care to address the needs of the uninsured and to help Ohioans become self-sufficient and stable is important, but the last point about the state’s economy and budget is why every member of the Ohio General Assembly should support the Medicaid expansion.

The Medicaid expansion draws federal dollars into Ohio. The Governor projects that $13 billion dollars of federal funding would come to Ohio by 2020. Other projections are as high as $20 billion. In any case, a huge amount of money would circulate and generate additional economic growth in Ohio’s towns, cities and counties.

The Medicaid expansion fills a $400 million hole in the state budget because it off sets costs for mental health, corrections, drug and alcohol treatment and other services.

Read more about the impact of a Medicaid expansion in Ohio, on the Office of Health Transformation’s website, http://www.healthtransformation.ohio.gov/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=vDu4XgXYGm0%3d&tabid=136

The expansion has the overwhelming support of the public, stakeholders and others. Click here to see what stakeholders and editorial boards have said about the expansion.
What they are saying about extending Medicaid coverage: Stakeholders and Editorials

The House removed the expansion from the budget it passed and has said that it will consider an expansion in the fall of 2013. The Senate President has announced that he would support a separate bill to explore whether to expand Medicaid, but it is unclear when such a bill might be introduced, how quickly it would move, and whether the Senate would make it a priority.

In the meantime, the clock ticks on and Ohioans may not get the care they need and deserve, and the state will lose billions of dollars of federal funding, just when the state needs to increase its economic activity and growth. Standing in the way of expanding Medicaid is bad for the state and bad for Ohioans.

The Governor is right. Ohio needs to expand Medicaid now to provide care for its residents and to strengthen our economy. As concerned Ohioans, we should all first, contact the Governor to thank him for fighting for Medicaid, second, contact our legislators to ask them to do what is right for Ohio and Ohioans, expand our Medicaid program now and, third, tell our friends and neighbors to do the same.

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Medicaid Expansion is Right for Ohio (letter to editor, Columbus Dispatch, 4.4.13)

The Medicaid expansion currently being debated in the state budget would improve the health, safety and stability of Ohioans and Ohio families.

People who have access to health care are healthier. They get more appropriate preventive care and avoid emergency-room visits and heath crises. Many low-wage workers do not have access to employment-based health insurance, and they cannot afford to buy private insurance.

Families and individuals with access to health care are safer. They can get the health care they need, including immunizations and prescription medications, to avoid health risks and address chronic conditions.

Families and individuals with access to health care are more stable. Medical debt was a factor in 62 percent of the 38,000 bankruptcy filings in Ohio in 2012. Medical debts also play a significant role in home foreclosures. Access to health care would significantly reduce the number of bankruptcies and home foreclosures so that more Ohioans could remain economically stable and independent.

Debt also is a factor in domestic violence. Reducing medical debt would lessen family stress and domestic violence, keeping more families intact and stable.

Access to health care also will make Ohioans more employable, increasing their financial and social stability.

The Medicaid expansion would provide a helping hand to Ohio, Ohioans and Ohio families. It would keep Ohioans healthy, safe and stable. It is the right decision for Ohio and all of our residents.

– EUGENE R. KING

Director

Ohio Poverty Law Center

Columbus

http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/editorials/2013/04/04/1-medicaid-expansion-is-right-for-ohio.html

 

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Testimony to Joint Senate School Safety Subcommittee: Creating a Positive School Climate and Eliminating Harsh Zero Tolerance Policies Improve School Safety

The following is written testimony submitted by Ohio Poverty Law Center staff attorney Sarah Biehl at the Joint Senate School Safety Committee hearing at the Ohio Statehouse on March 12, 2013:

Senator LaRose, Senator Lehner, members of the School Safety Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the subject of school safety.  This is a vitally important topic for Ohio’s youth, and I commend you for taking the time to seek public input on how the legislature might best address it and protect children’s right to receive their educations in safe, secure, positive environments.

My interest in this topic stems from my experiences researching, analyzing, and advocating on school discipline issues, including zero tolerance policies, the overuse of harsh exclusionary discipline such as suspension and expulsion, and the negative outcomes for students that come with increased police presence in many schools.  I am here today to urge the committee to focus on taking action that will help Ohio schools work with their communities to build positive school climates where students, teachers, and staff feel safe, protected, and respected.  Evidence is growing across the United States that the best way to do this is to dismantle the school to prison pipeline:  eliminate zero tolerance policies, reduce the use of harsh exclusionary discipline to address minor, non-violent misbehavior among students, and put in place systems that build trust, respect, and dignity among all members of a school community.

In November 2012, the Ohio Poverty Law Center and Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio jointly published an issue brief entitled “Zero Tolerance and Exclusionary School Discipline Policies Harm Students and Contribute to the Cradle to Prison Pipeline.”[1]  In the brief, we drew on Ohio Department of Education data to show how Ohio children are being suspended or expelled from school at alarming rates, mostly for non-violent behavior such as “disobedient or disruptive behavior.”  Moreover, Ohio’s most vulnerable students disproportionately bear the burden of such policies.  African American students statewide are over five times more likely to be suspended for engaging in the same behavior as white students.  Children with disabilities are anywhere from two to eight times more likely to be suspended as non-disabled children.  Low-income children are two and a half times more likely to be suspended as children who are not low-income.

These disparities and the overall trend toward excluding children from school as a form of discipline make our schools less safe because these practices foster negative school climates in which children feel criminalized and isolated from what is, for many, one of the few stable institutions in their lives.  The consequences to schools, children, and communities are devastating.  Research nationally shows that schools that use zero tolerance policies and have higher suspension rates are not safer – in fact, the increase in the use of harsh zero tolerance policies correlates with an increase in violent incidents on school property, and also correlates with lower academic achievement and test scores.  For children, a history of prior suspensions from school is the number one factor that leads to kids dropping out of school and is linked with a host of other negative academic and life outcomes.  And communities where a large number of young people are neither in school nor working are not as productive or stable as communities with higher high school graduation and employment rates.  When our schools and communities are less safe and stable, our students and school staff are, too.

Since 2004, I have coordinated and worked with the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC)[2], a national multi-stakeholder coalition of youth, parents, educators, grassroots groups, and policy and legal advocacy groups that works to challenge the systemic problem of school pushout in our nation’s schools.  One of the goals of the DSC is to ensure that those most affected by the education system and school pushout are at the center of our work and have a voice in policies that will affect their lives.  Since the Newtown shootings last year, a group of youth leaders within DSC have been working on an effort to ensure that their voices are heard by the policymakers around the country who are considering new policies in response to Newtown.  Since none of those students are here today, I wanted to share a small excerpt of their statement[3] with you:

We can imagine the pain and suffering that the youth and families in Newtown, Connecticut are experiencing.  As youth growing up on some of America’s deadliest streets, we are all too familiar with gun violence and its impacts.  Too many of us have been shot and shot at.  We have buried our friends and family members.  Nearly all of us have been to more funerals than graduations.  No one wants the violence to stop more than we do. . . .For forty years, federal, state, and local dollars have gone toward the massive build-up of juvenile halls, jails and prisons while simultaneously severe cuts have been made to our school and higher education budgets. . . .As a result, in communities of color throughout the nation, students now experience a vicious school-to-jail track.  These policies haven’t protected us, helped us to graduate or taught us anything about preventing violence.  They have taught us to fear a badge, to hate school and to give up on our education.  We understand too well that guns in anyone’s hands are not the solution.  You can’t build peace with a piece.

Obviously, these students represent a particularly urban perspective, and are approaching this issue specifically as youth of color, and you as policymakers have to make policies that apply to all school districts in Ohio, urban, rural, and suburban, but I think their perspective is uniquely compelling.  Their full statement goes on to make many of the same recommendations I make to you here today.

Recommendations: 

Instead of continuing harsh school discipline policies and placing more guns and/or police officers in schools, I urge you to consider policies that will build positive school climates instead:

  1. Eliminate zero tolerance policies.  Ohio has a state statute, R.C. 3313.534, that directs Ohio boards of education to adopt “a policy of zero tolerance for violent, disruptive, or inappropriate behavior.”  This state statute is outdated, ineffective, and should be eliminated and replaced with a revised code section specifically encouraging school districts to adopt positive, preventive approaches to school discipline and bullying.
  2. Develop, promote, and fund trainings and other resources for teachers, administrators, and other education professionals on classroom behavior management, school-wide positive behavior interventions and supports, restorative practices and restorative justice programs, and other proven, evidence-based models for teaching children positive behavior.
  3. Create opportunities for parents and students to be involved in implementing and monitoring new school discipline policies that promote positive school culture.
  4. Address bullying in schools by providing incentives for school to put in place preventive bullying programs and by adding an enumerated list of categories of students to be protected from bullying.  Enumerated policies have been shown nationally to be more effective at increasing student safety and improving the efficacy of anti-bullying strategies.

There is a lot more information and data, both locally and nationally, on these topics and I would be happy to share details with any of you who have more questions or would like to talk in further detail.  I hope that I have helped to provide a slightly different perspective on how this committee can best work to increase safety and security in Ohio’s schools, and I hope fervently that regardless of what this committee does, it maintains its focus on ensuring that all Ohio children have access to safe, high quality educations and are treated with dignity and fairness in school.


[3] Statement By Youth of Color On School Safety and Gun Violence In America in the Aftermath of the Mass Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, http://www.dignityinschools.org/sites/default/files/Youth_Statement_Gun_Violence.pdf

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