DPW also used Act 22 to introduce co-pays for subsidized child care and to limit Medicaid coverage — including that virtually unreported provision limiting recipients to one pair of dentures.
Corbett has put off politically awkward issues like a natural-gas tax and transportation funding by forming stakeholder commissions. When it comes to the state's safety net, however, his administration implements unilateral and drastic changes — at a time when hundreds of thousands of newly out-of-work Pennsylvanians are signing up for food stamps and Medicaid.
Last year, more than half a million Philadelphians received Medicaid; the number was 2,202,274 statewide, up 318,640 since 2007. The number of people relying on food stamps grew by 603,804 over those same five years, reaching 1,725,606 statewide, including nearly half a million in Philadelphia.
A February 2011 United Way survey of Pennsylvania service providers found they had seen a 51 percent increase in first-time clients.
"Service delivery is at a rock-bottom level," says United Way of Pennsylvania president Tony Ross. "The social safety net is really being stretched to the breaking point."
The net has already snapped at the welfare office near North Broad and Indiana, a bunker-like structure surrounded by a fenced-in parking lot just two blocks from a mural of Roxanne Jones, the first African-American woman in the Pennsylvania Senate, a militant welfare-rights organizer and a former welfare recipient herself.
The beleaguered Ridge/Tioga North Philadelphia County Assistance Office, like other welfare offices that provide food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance, is now in serious crisis.
Making matters worse, Corbett's proposed budget will raise Medicaid eligibility requirements and eliminate the General Assistance Program, which provides cash assistance to nearly 68,000 disabled adults, domestic violence survivors, children in the care of nonrelatives and others. Says Pennsylvania Sen. Shirley Kitchen, "I think it's really a knockout punch for people who are really the most vulnerable in our society."
Valerie Bowens, 58, cares for her 84-year-old mother in North Philadelphia. She spends a lot of time at the Ridge/Tioga County Assistance Office, which has lost her documents and then erroneously threatened to cut her benefits at least three times — and that was before the recent cuts.
"I don't know if you've ever seen the movie Groundhog Day?" asks Bowens, who, like others interviewed for this story, says that no one ever picks up the phone at the office and messages are not returned. In-person visits to the office are necessary, and often include half-day waits.
Bowens has a severe heart condition and diabetes, but has worked most of her life. She is now a full-time student at the Community College of Philadelphia, and last semester — her first — earned a 4.0. Yet, when she requested a monthly transit pass to get to school, welfare staff told her — again, erroneously — that they would cut off her food stamps because she is a student. They didn't, but Bowens is now afraid to return to the welfare office: Her benefits, she fears, might get improperly cut by the overworked staff.
"You're already injured when you have to be there," she says. "But then the insult."
Take Cassie, 51, found smoking a cigarette outside the welfare office. Laid off from her job in 2010, she has been unable to find work. Now she's unsure whether she'll get assistance. Inside the office, the waiting room is packed. "I'm here applying for welfare, food stamps and medical assistance, because all of my unemployment insurance is expired," she says.
If she doesn't get called for an interview in the next hour and a half, she will have to leave — and go pay an electricity bill. She filled out an online application, and for weeks it was "pending." When Cassie called the state, they told her that she would need to come in for an interview. She wonders whether anyone planned on telling her. "What was the purpose of doing it online?"
In the meantime, her job search has been extensive, she says. But she recently lost a tooth and can't fix it without health insurance. Getting a job with a tooth missing is hard.
Luisa Morales, 73, has visited the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program office across the hall five times over the past month, attempting to prove her eligibility. She says after every visit, she must wait 48 hours to learn if she's approved. Each time, she returns with more documents.
"It's tremendous," says the Puerto Rico native, eager to heat her home. "It wasn't like this last year."
The state has also implemented major cuts to programs that help people in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure. And for those who lose their homes, funds to assist the homeless have also been cut, as has funding to shelter women who flee their homes because of domestic violence.
Even more extraordinary: Since August, DPW has quietly kicked 88,000 Pennsylvania children off Medicaid. Workers blame a directive from Harrisburg that required them to review a backlog of documents in a matter of weeks. Basic due diligence like checking to make sure that mail was going to a current address did not happen. The number of adults removed cannot be determined because the state recently changed its accounting method, a move that advocates call suspicious.
The Medicaid breakdown comes on the heels of the Corbett administration's termination of the adultBasic health-care program, which covered 42,000 low-income Pennsylvanians ineligible for Medicaid. The Medicaid chaos extends to every corner of the city, affecting people of all classes.
Among those affected is Deborah Goldberg's 4-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy. Goldberg had applied for Medicaid last summer and received a letter in September saying that her daughter had been approved. But then the office that had just made her daughter's new braces called back: They needed a $2,700 payment. Her daughter wasn't showing up as covered under Medicaid.
No one picked up the phone, so she had to visit the welfare office in South Philadelphia last Thursday, arriving at 1 p.m. and leaving four hours later with the news that she would have to reapply from scratch. Worse yet, she will likely have to pay the $2,700 out-of-pocket, along with a hospital bill she estimates will come to $7,000 — plus more money for an upcoming surgery.
Goldberg graduated from Penn and works as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company. Her husband is a doctor, and the couple lives in Rittenhouse Square. But their employee health insurance does not cover many of their daughter's intense and critical needs. "I'm going to be paying astronomical credit card bills," she says. Goldberg doesn't blame DPW employees. "They wanted to help, but didn't have the tools or resources to do it," she says.