Single parents applying online for MaineCare coverage are being asked personal questions – such as whether their child was conceived in Maine and why the absent parent no longer lives in the home – as part of the application.
From a scroll-down menu of possible reasons that the other parent left home, the Maine- Care applicant can choose “unwed parenthood, divorce, abandonment, death, separation, incarceration” and others.
Department of Health and Human Services spokesman John Martins said the questions are not meant to intrude on privacy, but are needed to determine whether child support is owed and whether paternity needs to be established. The questions are included in the online questionnaire for single mothers and fathers on the Maine.gov website, and they include no direct references to child support or paternity.
“We’re just trying to do a job and collect the information that needs to be collected,” Martins said.
Child support payments do not count as income for a Maine- Care applicant, but they could affect other public assistance benefits that the applicant might request, Martins said.
He said the federal government requires states to gather child-support information from Medicaid applicants, although federal rules do not dictate how the states must word the questions. MaineCare, the state’s name for its Medicaid program, is funded with state and federal money.
But several lawmakers said the questions unnecessarily infringe on applicants’ privacy.
Sen. Colleen Lachowicz, D-Waterville, said paternity and child support are determined by a court, and there is no reason to ask about conception or why a parent left home on a MaineCare application.
“Where a child is conceived has nothing to do with paternity. That (conception) can happen anywhere,” Lachowicz said. “I don’t understand why these questions should be asked.” She said she will look into whether the questions should be revised.
Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, chair of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said those questions are “goofy” and should be removed from the questionnaire.
“He (the absent parent) is gone. It doesn’t make any difference what the circumstances were that he left,” Farnsworth said.
The Press Herald learned of the issue when a single parent who was offended by the questions contacted the newspaper. The York County resident, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid problems with her ex-husband, said the questions made her angry.
“I thought, ‘How dare they?’ ” she said. “I thought it was an outrageous and unacceptable insult to my privacy.”
She said she refused to sign up for MaineCare because of the intrusive questions, even though her financial situation is dire.
Emily Brostek, consumer assistance program manager for Consumers for Affordable Health Care, a group that helps people apply for state benefits, said the conception and absentee-parent questions have no bearing on MaineCare eligibility.
“Those questions would not affect eligibility for MaineCare,” Brostek said. “We are definitely concerned about the wording.”
The questions do not appear on forms available online that can be printed out and mailed to DHHS. On those forms, applicants are directly asked whether they are owed child support.
Martins said he believes questions such as where a child is conceived and why a parent has left a household do appear on printed forms that aren’t available online, but he couldn’t immediately produce them for the Press Herald late Tuesday afternoon.
Martins said the online application was developed a few years ago and implemented about two years ago. The questions have not caused a stir until now.
“I don’t believe the questions have changed (since it started),” Martins said.
Robyn Merrill, a senior policy analyst for Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit group that advocates for low-income Mainers, said she sat on a committee that helped craft the online MaineCare application, and she doesn’t believe there was any intent to embarrass applicants.
“Any negative consequence is unintended,” Merrill said. “I think we just had some poorly worded questions.”
Martins, in an email response to a question, wrote that the questions could help the MaineCare recipient.
“Getting as much information as possible at the application stage typically helps the applicant, as the (child support enforcement department) will have all the information it needs to complete its work and the recipient will not have to return to the office to provide information to the staff,” Martins wrote.
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: [email protected]