Emily Rice Published

Unite Us W.Va. Provides Assistance During Rollback Of Pandemic Benefits

A patient lays in a hospital bed, smiling up and holding hands with a supportive physician.Hero Images/Getty Images

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the federal government sought to help families through temporary emergency increases to benefit programs including Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). 

Since April 2020, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) has issued SNAP, CHIP, and Medicaid emergency allotments, increasing each household’s monthly benefits.

Now that the state public health emergency has ended, monthly SNAP benefits have returned to the pre-COVID-19 public health emergency level based on the household’s income, assets, household size, and other non-financial factors. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 37.3 percent of West Virginia households receiving SNAP benefits have children. About 170,000 households have been affected in the state.

Devon Lopez is the community engagement manager for Unite Us, West Virginia. She said these changes not only create a hunger cliff, but in rural communities, the rolling back of benefits could create food deserts. A food desert is an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food.

“So this kind of becomes a larger issue than an individual just not receiving enough, you know, benefits to receive food. This is being experienced across all social wellness, but obviously, SNAP is the latest to be hit with this,” Lopez said. “And so what we’re seeing in West Virginia, is that we know one in six West Virginians actually receive SNAP benefits. And beyond that, what we do know is that a lot of those folks who receive SNAP benefits are in our rural communities.”

Lopez said the rolling back of pandemic-era benefits often has negative effects on organizations that provide assistance, like food banks.

Cyndi Kirkhart is the CEO of Facing Hunger Food Bank, based in Huntington. It is one of only two food banks in West Virginia. The other is Mountaineer Food Bank, based in Gassaway. 

Food insecurity will only increase along with inflation costs, Kirkhart said. She budgeted $2.5 million to purchase food for the Facing Hunger Food Bank in 2022. The bank actually expended $4 million to feed its community.

“It is going to provide a lot of, you know, negative effects on the organizations or entities that may be providing those assistance over time and we’re gonna see those you know, pull back as well,” Lopez said.

Unite Us, West Virginia aims to mitigate the fallout from unrolling benefits by providing an electronic platform for people and organizations to find assistance.

“We enable cross-sector collaboration between community-based organizations, government entities, health systems, nonprofits, really bringing all of those folks together on one single platform or infrastructure electronically,” Lopez said. “I call it the three C’s. It allows these organizations to all collaborate, communicate and coordinate for an individual’s care together beyond their four walls.”

Lopez said Unite Us is able to bring everyone together at one single table to meet the individual in need, where they’re at, and provide care and assistance.

“We’re so community-driven, because there’s multiple of me across the country that live and work in the communities working to build trust,” Lopez said. “And we’re not just an entity that comes in and says we’re going to help you like a lot of times we see in West Virginia. I’m from here, I believe in this and I’m doing the work on the ground.”

Unite Us is a unique program, according to Lopez, because they provide a team that’s ready to support people and organizations every step of the way.

“And I think one of the most unique things about the work that we do is the fact that our platform is absolutely at no cost for our community-based organizations so they can leverage this technology, the platform for referrals for free at no cost,” Lopez said.