Freaking out about the possibility of Section 8

November 27, 2015

Life has never been easy or predictable. At one point I thought it was, but back then I assumed I’d have my PhD, be married and have kids by the time I was 30. Now I’m well past 30, I haven’t spoke to that guy in 13 years, there are no kids, and I never did finish the PhD. I have no regrets. I’m just saying, life is unpredictable.

And in case I dared to forget it, the last few hours have reminded me all too clearly.

Life has been less certain than ever since I left my job 4 years ago. I can’t believe it’s been that long. Still, after a ton of work and effort, research, new doctors, new treatments, and fighting with insurance companies, I finally reached a point where I felt I might be able to do a little part time work. I was nervous, but also hopeful. It would be so nice not to have to worry about being on benefits that didn’t cover all the bills.

Today I did some work on that new business. I was feeling really excited about it! At 4pm I was jazzed, telling my mother all about my new plans and progress, outlining some next steps for myself, and imagining the possibility that this might actually work! At 5:30 I decided to check the mail. At 5:35, everything changed.

I had an unexpected letter.

I’m near the top of the waiting list for Section 8, so they want to start getting my paperwork ready and have an interview with me. Holy fuck! What just happened???

For those who don’t know, Section 8 is a housing voucher program. If you earn less than a certain amount, you’re eligible. Typically, you then pay 30% of your rent and the government pays the rest. There aren’t a lot of vouchers and the waiting list is long. When I signed up, I was told the wait was 3-4 years, so I put it out of my head. Whenever it popped back in, I reminded myself that I had a long wait and shouldn’t plan for it. And now, a year and a half later, it seems like it could soon be a reality. Sounds good, right?

Of course, like with anything, there are a few catches. For one thing, if you start earning more, then you lose the Section 8, and I don’t know what happens then. Would I have to move? And to use it in the first place I might have to move, and my choices would be very limited. Not all landlords accept Section 8 vouchers and I don’t know if mine does. Many don’t. Then there’s the problem that there are rental limits, and they’re pretty low for this area, so that makes it significantly harder to find a place.

Of course, this is just what I’ve heard and read. The truth is, I don’t know a lot. I have so many questions, but I got the letter at 5:30pm on a Friday, of course, so I need to wait all weekend before I can call and ask any of them.

So now I’m wondering, is this a good thing? It seems like it should be a good thing. If I’m doing the math right, this would mean I could almost cover all of my bills every month! There would be a small gap, maybe $50-$100 per month, but I could handle that. I get paid for small jobs here and there, and I get birthday and Chanukah checks, so I’m sure that wouldn’t be a problem. And would it be amazing to not have to worry about money?!? Ok, sure, I still wouldn’t have anything extra. It’s not like I could suddenly start eating out more, buying more clothes, or traveling. But it’s not like I really have to do any of those things anyway. So…. maybe this is good?

I’m nervous. I’m so used to things going wrong that it feels like there must be a big catch here that I’m not seeing yet. But then, what if there isn’t….?

If you’re on Section 8, what has your experience been like? What questions should I be asking? What should I know?

 

Advertisements

When you’re not the “right” kind of poor and disabled

August 7, 2019

I just learned about a program for low income and disabled folks to get internet access for $10 per month from Comcast. Too bad I wasn’t eligible, despite meeting all of the criteria. You see, I’m not the “right” kind of disabled and poor.

I looked at the list of requirements for the program. Despite only needing to check off one box, I could check off many: I am on Medicaid, getting SNAP (food stamps), on Section 8 (a housing voucher), and in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (for help paying utilities.) But I’m not eligible. Why? Because I’m not a new customer. You see, it doesn’t matter how little money you have coming in, if you aren’t new to the internet, then you aren’t eligible for this program. Comcast is the only option for internet service where I live and the least expensive plan is $79 per month. It bothers me when I pay my bills every month, especially since the service I had in my last apartment was better quality and only $45. Still, it’s the only choice for internet here, and I consider internet a necessity for as long as I can afford it. Lowering it by $65 per month (accounting for taxes and fees on the new plan) would make a huge difference, though!

I’m not the “right” kind of poor and disabled for a lot of government and other programs either, though I have managed to get quite a few accommodations, for which I am very grateful.

I am so not the “right” kind of disabled according to a lot of people out there. After all, I can mostly walk without any assistive devices, and that’s their only consideration. I mostly look healthy, especially if you don’t look too closely. That’s all that “counts,” as far as they are concerned.

But that’s not the reality. The reality is that I spent all day feeling like crap, not even managing to get dressed until 2pm, because I had to be out of the house most of the previous day for medical tests. The tests were easy, but the travel too and from, plus being alert and interactive, was just too much for me. I came home exhausted and in a ton of pain, and had to spend the next day recovering.

The reality is that I have a lot of money in the bank, and I am so grateful for that. But I also know that the only reason my totals appear to go up is because my investments have gone up. It’s not real. When the market turns, as it always does, those numbers will go way down, and I won’t have any job income to offset the fall. I am thankful for my social security payments, but they don’t cover enough.

For a minute last summer, my benefits covered all of my basic expenses, which meant if I earned a little money from dogsitting or something, I could use it to go out to eat or buy clothes, and not have to take money out of savings. I would need those savings for a bigger expense, like to replace my car or to move, but for everyday things, I was ok. And then a couple months later I lost my food stamps. I had to start taking an expensive medication that insurance didn’t cover. And once again, for basic monthly expenses, I was taking money out of savings.

My savings are my safety net, but I know they won’t last forever, especially if I have to take out money just to cover the basics. So no, I’m not really poor in the typical sense. Yes, there are people who need the help more than I do right now. On the other hand, without these benefits I receive, I would quickly run through my savings. Then I would be in a dire situation, because the benefits wouldn’t cover all of my basic expenses and I would no longer have savings to make up the difference. Then what would I do?

And that is the crux of the issue with the “right” kind of poor and disabled. By the time we meet that definition, things have deteriorated to the point where the help no longer helps the way it would have earlier on. For example, one day I will need knee replacement surgery. Right now I do physical therapy and wear knee braces in order to put off the need for the surgery. If the problem was caught sooner, I could have avoided years of pain. So now I could ignore my exercises and forget the knee braces and get the surgery right away, knowing that it will have to be repeated every decade or so. Or I can use the supports I have now and put off the surgery, in the hopes that I will only need to have it done a couple of times throughout the rest of my life. I choose the latter. But imagine if I didn’t have a choice. Imagine if my only option was to repeatedly have the surgery. That’s what these programs want. They want us to get the point where we no longer have better options, and then maybe they will help us.

I am lucky. I have the option to keep pulling money out of savings to pay for basics. These days, my basics are rent, utilities, groceries, medical expenses, gas, car insurance, and car maintenance. Everything else is an extra, including a meal out, a gift for a friend or relative, or a new sweater. I get help for some of those necessities, like rent, utilities, and groceries. Still, my benefits only go so far, and my medical expenses are high, since a lot isn’t covered by insurance. Without savings, I would be choosing which of those necessities to get rid of and frankly, I don’t see anything on that list that I’m willing to live without (the car is necessary where I live now and even before, when I lived near public transportation, I was often too sick or in too much pain to take it and would have to drive instead.)

So screw the folks who only want to help the “right” kind of poor and disabled people. We all deserve help, and these programs should be available to those who need them.

I want to add a final, important note. I doubted myself. Maybe I was being too harsh? Maybe it’s good to limit these programs to only the most needy among us? Maybe I’m being selfish? Self doubt is a big problem for a lot of people, and it comes up a lot for folks with chronic illness. Personally, I was told for years that I wasn’t “sick enough” to get help, and that ended up making me a lot sicker. If only I had been diagnosed and treated a decade earlier, I might not be disabled now. I might be able to work full time, and these money issues wouldn’t be on my radar. So yes, I still doubt my needs. And then, while I wasn’t sure if I should hit “publish” I went over to Facebook, and saw a bunch of comments on a post I had made about this program. Several folks were really excited to see it, then disappointed to learn they weren’t eligible because they already had internet through Comcast. Those who were able were already talking about switching to another provider, with the plan to switch back in three months in order to get on this program. Because yes, there are people with internet access who have health and money issues and who need the help. We need help, not gatekeeping. This is a federal program, and should be open to everyone. And that is what made me decide to publish this post after all.

What do you think? Should programs like this be available to everyone who is low income, even if they have internet access already? Are the restrictions reasonable or bullshit? Please comment below, because I would love to know what you think.


Insurance that won’t cover medication

May 10, 2019

I have always been financially independent, meaning I supported myself. I worked in nonprofit for my entire career, so I never earned a lot of money. Still, I lived frugally and made it work, while managing to save money. Then I became too sick to work. Suddenly, money became a big problem.

Social security, fuel assistance, and food stamps helped, but they weren’t enough. I was pulling money out of savings every month. Thankfully I had savings, and enough that I wasn’t on the verge of ruin, but not enough to last me indefinitely. I tried to work multiple times. Each time I increased my hours, I got sicker. Some weeks I could manage 5 hours of work. Some weeks 10 hours. But if I tried to work 10 hours per week for two weeks in a row, it was a disaster. Even 5 hours per week wasn’t sustainable over time.

Then last year, I got Section 8! (For those outside the U.S., Section 8 is a housing subsidy. These days, the wait list to get Section 8 can be 10 years or more, and the restrictions for using it are very strict. With this type of Section 8, you pay no more than 1/3 of your income on rent, and the government covers the rest.) I was in shock. I thought I would be on the waiting list for several more years, but out of the blue, I reached the top of the list. Finally, I could cover all of my basic expenses with my benefits! I would still have to take money out of savings if I wanted to go to the theater, eat dinner with friends, buy clothes, or pay for car repairs, but this was still a huge improvement. It lasted about a minute.

Less than two months later, I got kicked off of food stamps. They said I earned $20 per month over the limit. I had no idea where that number came from, because I wasn’t close to the limit. So I did the paperwork and sent it in. I got food stamps back, but the same month I started a new prescription. It has to be compounded, as probably all of my medications will have to be from now on. That’s the only way to get this particular medication without any corn or gluten in it, which is a medical necessity for me.

Unfortunately, Medicare doesn’t care that it’s a medical necessity; they refuse to cover compounds. At $150 per month, this is obviously not in my budget. I appeal and was denied. I found an amazing patient advocacy group that helped me with a second appeal at no cost. My patient advocate helped me in many ways and this time my appeal included a 1000 word letter about why I need this medication and how it helps me, a more thorough letter from my doctor, and more of my own medical records.

And I was denied. Again. I can continue to appeal but it won’t help. Compound medications by their very nature are not FDA approved, and Medicare won’t cover anything that isn’t FDA approved. So I’m stuck.

Again, the good news is that I can afford this. I have savings. The bad news is that savings only goes so far. And every time I need to add a new prescription (I will probably have another in the next month or so) it will most likely need to be compounded. The costs might vary, but it won’t be cheap.

I take a lot of supplements and visit a lot of medical professionals. I spend about $600 on healthcare despite having great insurance. I take only ONE prescription medication and yet my insurance won’t cover it, so now I need to increase my medical spending by 25% to cover this additional $150 per month.

For a few weeks I could cover my expenses without dipping into savings or having to ask my parents for money. It was glorious. If only Medicare worked the way it should, I would still be in that position. Instead, I am watching my savings slowly go down month after month and it’s terrifying. But I need this medication to live.

Now please excuse me, I need to go call in a refill of my medication.


Goodbye food stamps

November 26, 2018

Edit 11/27/18: I must apologize to all of you wonderful readers for the errors in the original version of this post. As it turns out, the income limit for food stamps was not cut in half. The person on the phone didn’t know what they were talking about and the appropriate information was missing from their web site (both of these issues have been reported.) So that part is good!

However, I have still lost my benefits for now. The reason is that in determining the income limit, medical deductions are not counted. WTF?!?! My income had gone up, and I am now $20 over the limit. Just $20!!! However, my income has since gone down again, so I can resubmit paperwork to get my benefits reinstated. It’s a lot of effort, but worth it.

But think about how hard it was to learn this. I got a letter with misinformation. I spent 45 minutes on hold to speak with someone who gave more misinformation. I spent the night thinking my benefits were cut off. Then this morning someone called me back and explained it all. Why wasn’t that explanation put in the original letter?! The system is broken in so many ways. Not to mention the part where I lose $172 every month in benefits because my income is $20 too high. If they want people to get off benefits, this isn’t the way to do it, because this just encourages people to earn less so they don’t fall off the benefits cliff! Now back to the original post….

Benefits in the U.S. (and many other places) are majorly screwed up. Today I’ll tell you how I lost my food benefits, which I just learned about a few minutes ago.

When I first became disabled, I wasn’t eligible for the SNAP program (formerly called food stamps) because my assets were too high – meaning I had too much money in the bank. But then they changed that, and I was able to sign up. For 4 years I have received money every month to buy food.

The limits are strict. I can only buy certain kinds of food – nothing from the bakery, for example. And only food – no soap or toothpaste or toilet paper. Still, it helps a lot!

Until this year, I was getting the maximum amount for a single person in Massachusetts. It didn’t cover everything, which was worrisome. I’m small (around 125 pounds) and sedentary. How would someone bigger and more active manage on that small amount? Luckily for me, I have savings, so I used that to make up the difference. Friends of mine went to food pantries. Sucky, but that’s our system.

Earlier this year my benefits were lowered by $20. That sucked, but I knew it would go back next year when I filed my 2018 taxes, showing less income. It still surprised me that with my low income I wasn’t getting the maximum anymore. Again, a very messed up system.

And then yesterday I got a letter saying my benefits were getting cancelled. Part of the reason had to do with me not being disabled. Of course it was a weekend, so I had to wait. In the meantime, I did some research. New guidelines came out on October 1, but even so, I should qualify. So today I called. After 45 minutes on hold, I got someone. She didn’t know much and I had to keep correcting her. Finally, well over an hour after I’d called, it was 5pm – time to quit. She said she or her supervisor would call me back tomorrow. But I’d learned one thing: the income limit she used was half of what I was seeing online. I said that, and she couldn’t explain it. So after we hung up, I did more research.

In many states, there’s no asset limit, but in Massachusetts there is. Here’s how it works: if you’re not disabled, there’s an asset limit (about $2000.) If you are disabled, then there’s a higher asset limit (about $3350) but only if you earn more than a certain amount. If you earn under that amount, you can have any assets you want. If you earn over that amount, there’s an asset cap. A house doesn’t count. Cars don’t count. But money in the bank does count. I have enough in the bank to cause a problem if they look at my assets, but my income was always low enough that it wasn’t an issue.

And I’m glad for that money in the bank! It’s there for emergencies. It pays for medical expenses when there’s a month where they cost more. It will pay for my new car when my current car dies. It pays for a dinner out with friends once a month or a new sweater or two from the consignment shop. It’s what kept me from having to move in with my parents while I waited for over 2 years for SSDI to come through. I worked my ass off for that money in the bank. I spent my career working in nonprofit, which as we all know, doesn’t pay very well. And I was living in Boston, one of the most expensive parts of the country. Saving that money was NOT easy! I cut back on a lot of things to save that money. As my friend Rob said to me a few minutes ago: “You’re being punished for doing everything right except being able bodied.”

Because now that money in the bank counts against me.  But it shouldn’t.

You see, until October 1, the income limit was 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL.) That comes out to $2023. That’s a tiny sum in this part of Massachusetts. Especially for someone who is disabled who could easily spend hundreds every month in health expenses. I was under that amount, so my assets were irrelevant. Then on October 1 they changed the income limit to 100% FPL. That comes out to $1012!

Think about that for a minute. In an area where a 1 bedroom apartment in lousy shape will cost at least $800 per month, the income limit is $1012. So if you earn $1015 and pay $800 for your apartment while you’re on a waiting list for Section 8 housing, you now have $215 to pay for food, medical expenses, transportation, and anything else in your life. It just can’t be done. So you have to dip into your savings. Let’s say your assets are just a bit over the limit, around $4000. How long do you think that will last you? A year if you’re lucky? Probably less. At that point you can now get on benefits. And if you have an problems where you need savings, you have spent them all and you’re now entirely fucked.

Or maybe you earn more. Maybe you earn $2000 and you have $10,000 in the bank. That’s plenty of money, right? Not really. It’s hard to live on $2000 in this area if you’re able-bodied. If you’re disabled, it’s not enough. You’ll have to take money out of savings each month. As soon as you have to pay for a car repair or two, or a couple of large medical expenses, your savings will be gone.

There’s no perfect answer. I get that. But to cut the income limit in half is cruel. To do so without warning anyone is heartless. To send out a form letter that doesn’t explain any of this and just cut off people’s benefits is both.

You know that safety net everyone is always counting on? Watch out, because the holes just got even bigger.


%d bloggers like this: