Gov. Dannel P. Malloy refused to tip his hand Wednesday on whether he’s planning to veto a bill that would require “fair hearings” at the Department of Social Services.
Advocates and lawmakers, who unanimously passed the legislation, have expressed concern that Malloy was leaning toward vetoing a bill they believe will help restore trust in government.
“I’m aware of the legislation,” Malloy said Wednesday. “I’m aware of pros. I’m aware of cons and ultimately I’ve got to sit down and wrap my mind around that.”
The bill would require hearing officers to inform individuals appealing their denial of benefits, such as Medicaid or food stamps, to let that individual know if they spoke with one of the attorneys inside the agency about the case.
“We believe this is an issue of fundamental fairness for people who need support,” Sen. Gayle Slossberg, who chairs the Human Services Committee, said Monday. “They should have a fair hearing and fairness shouldn’t take a backseat to an administrative burden.”
But the Department of Social Services said it would increase the time their 20 hearing officers, who aren’t attorneys, may have to spend on the more than 25,000 hearing requests the agency receives each year.
DSS Legal Director Brenda Parrella told Slossberg during a March hearing on the bill that because they’re managing so many cases “we’re protective of the additional time-consuming steps in scheduling and dispatching decisions.”
But for advocates and consumers, appealing the denial of benefits isn’t about the time it takes, it’s about the fairness of the process.
In a Connecticut Law Tribune editorial, former Superior Court Judge Beverly Hodgson compared the situation to going to court and finding out that the person giving advice to the judge is your opponent.
“How would you like it if that advice were given without you having an opportunity to be heard?” Hodgson wrote in her May 30 editorial. The Connecticut Law Tribune also ran its own editorial in support of the legislation.
Lawmakers like Slossberg say the situation Hodgson described is akin to what’s happening now and all they want to do is change it so if those communications happen the person appealing their benefits is given an opportunity to respond. Slossberg said many of the individuals appealing the decisions of the agency are not represented by attorneys and are already at a disadvantage in trying to make their case.
DSS Commissioner Roderick Bremby disagrees.
“Hearing officers should be able to continue to seek assistance in understanding agency law and regulation from other members of the agency without notifying all parties of a hearing and providing opportunity for parties to participate on the record,” Bremby testified back in March. “Such a requirement would be unnecessarily burdensome and time consuming and increases the likelihood of erroneous decisions being issued.”
Over the past five to six years, Bremby said the clients have prevailed in the hearings.
But Slossberg said from the consumers perspective they’re walking into the hearing expecting that they’re going to “have a fair hearing that is with someone who is independent, where the decision they’re making is based on the evidence presented in the record and not some conversation that they’re having on the side.”
Shelly White, an attorney with New Haven Legal Assistance, said she’s not opposed to hearing officers in the department getting legal advice from time-to-time from attorneys within the department. All the bill does is require the other side to be notified about “what the need for additional information is,” and gives them a chance to respond, White testified in March.
Malloy has another week to decide whether to sign or veto the bill.