Welcome to the Health & Welfare Council of Long Island

At the Health & Welfare Council of Long Island (HWCLI), our work is to ensure that our region is a welcoming and inclusive place for everyone to live. We can set the standard for what an equitable region looks like. That means safe communities, decent, affordable housing, healthy food, access to care and an opportunity to thrive. In our quest for improvements and systemic change, we face a unique set of obstacles. In fact, the poverty rate today is at its highest since 1959. Given the current assault on the country’s most vulnerable communities, our work is more important than ever.

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Recent News

June 18, 2024

Over $22 million available to help New Yorkers stay cool

Posted on June 18th, 2024

By Jon Dowding

Read on News 12

Over $22 million is available now to help New Yorkers stay cool from the comfort of their own homes.

The Home Energy Assistance Program provides help to those who need financial assistance for cooling and heating in their homes.

Health & Welfare Council of LI president and CEO Vanessa Baird-Streeter says the resource can provide major assistance to families across Long Island during the summer.

"The opportunity to be able to get up to $800 for an air conditioner or a fan and then up to (...) $1,000 for a sleeve, that is really going to provide some relief for residents and our community members,” she said.

Most people who qualify for HEAP mainly seek assistance during the winter months and often forget the assistance is available during the summer months as well.

"Residents who are eligible for HEAP, have the opportunity to be eligible for cooling assistance as well,” said Baird-Streeter. “And we really don't think about that."

Use this link to find the HEAP assistance contacts for Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Learn more about the HEAP cooling assistance program here.

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June 6, 2024

Northwell to expand financial aid under agreement with attorney general

By David Olson

Updated June 4, 2024 8:22 pm

Read on Newsday

Northwell Health has reached an agreement with state Attorney General Letitia James’ office to provide free or discounted medical care in many of its facilities to uninsured and underinsured people making as much as five times the federal poverty level and to limit medical debt collection.

The agreement goes beyond a newly enacted state law that mandates discounted hospital medical care for those making up to four times the federal poverty level and matches the new law’s requirement of free care for people making less than twice the poverty level.

The agreement with Northwell means families of four earning up to $156,000 a year and individuals making up to $75,300 will be eligible for discounts, which increase as income decreases.

The definition of “underinsured” in the Northwell agreement matches the definition in the new state law: people with out-of-pocket medical expenses greater than 10% of gross annual income.

“No one should face the choice between putting food on the table or receiving medical care,” James said in a statement. “This agreement will provide critical financial assistance to millions of New Yorkers receiving medical care at Northwell facilities and ease financial worries for many patients.”

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James said she hoped “other New York hospitals will follow their lead.”

But the nonprofit Manhattan-based Community Service Society said even with the agreement, Northwell is not as generous as other hospitals in providing financial assistance, and it criticized the attorney general’s office for bringing its own medical-debt lawsuits on behalf of state-run hospitals.

“I'm not sure why the attorney general is focusing on Northwell when the attorney general herself is bringing 83% of all the medical debt lawsuits in the state,” said Elisabeth Ryden Benjamin, vice president of health initiatives of the society, which focuses in part on health care access and economic security. “Northwell has essentially slowed down almost to a trickle. I think they're doing very few, if any.”

A report the society released last month found the five state-run hospitals — including Stony Brook University Hospital — brought 83% of medical-debt lawsuits in New York in 2023, compared with 17% for all the state’s 213 other public and nonprofit private hospitals combined. State-run hospitals filed 6,833 suits.

Benjamin said other hospital systems, including NYU Langone, already had financial assistance ceilings higher than Northwell’s.

NYU Langone offers discounts to patients in its hospitals and federally qualified health centers making up to eight times the poverty level, spokesman Steve Ritea said. For patients in other outpatient sites, discounts are available to those earning up to three times the poverty level, he said.

Northwell’s agreement applies to all its 21 hospitals, as well as 56 Northwell clinics on Long Island and in New York City.

Northwell said in a statement that it was “one of the first health systems in New York State to establish a robust financial assistance program in 2004, and has continued to strengthen its efforts over the past 20 years.”

The attorney general’s office said it reached the agreement after the office “reviewed Northwell’s financial assistance program and Northwell agreed to work with OAG to improve and expand its program.” The office would not say what prompted the review.

Northwell on Tuesday afternoon released a statement confirming it had “raised financial aid eligibility to families with annual household incomes up to five times the federal poverty level,” but spokeswoman Barbara Osborn later said it had “been 500% for years.”

The New York Times in January 2021 revealed that Northwell had sued more than 2,500 patients in 2020 for unpaid medical bills, even though almost all other private and state-run hospitals had stopped doing so in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly after the article was published, Northwell announced it would stop suing patients during the pandemic and would rescind its 2020 legal claims.

Under the agreement, Northwell will require patients earning 201% to 400% of the poverty level to pay between 5% and 20% of the Medicaid reimbursement rate, depending on income. Those making 401% to 500% would pay 100% of the Medicaid reimbursement rate, but that rate is far below the commercial rate, Benjamin said.

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, president and CEO of the Health & Welfare Council of Long Island, said the agreement will increase health care access.

“Medical debt isn’t merely a financial burden,” she said. “It also acts as a barrier for individuals seeking care without the means to cover medical costs.”

Under the five-year agreement, Northwell will dedicate a medical debt ombudsperson to make sure patients who owe money are aware of Northwell’s financial assistance policies before filing suit, and are not in one of several categories of patients, including veterans, enlisted service people and people with disabilities.

WHAT TO KNOW Northwell Health has reached an agreement with the state attorney general’s office to provide free or discounted medical care in its hospitals and some outpatient sites to families making up to $156,000 a year and individuals earning up to $73,500. Under the agreement, Northwell also will dedicate a medical debt ombudsperson to make sure patients are aware of the health system’s financial assistance policies before filing medical-debt lawsuits and take other steps to reduce such suits. Even though the agreement goes beyond requirements in a new state law, it falls short of assistance from other hospitals systems. A recent Community Service Society report said five state-run hospitals last year filed 83% of medical-debt suits.

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May 12, 2024

Food insecurity on Long Island: The struggle to make ends meet just above SNAP thresholds

By Tiffany Cusaac-Smith and Maureen Mullarkey

Updated May 13, 2024 8:26 am

Read on Newsday

As dusk approaches sunrise, Tangaligua Ivory usually can be found at a post office distribution center, operating forklifts and other machinery to haul heavy packages toward their final destinations. 

Once the parcels are categorized, Ivory, 34, briefly stops at her one-bedroom Melville apartment to help her 15-year-old daughter get ready for school. After the two say their goodbyes, Ivory is not done yet. She’s off to her part-time job at the MLK Center in Rockville Centre — a community center that offers youth programs and a food pantry.

The schedule is grueling, but it pays for the roughly $2,200 monthly rent for the apartment, and helps cover the electricity and gas bills.

What is often left by the wayside is food. To fill the gap, she applied for food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2017 and multiple times since 2020. But she was denied those benefits.

“I work two jobs, and I can barely make it,” she said. “So, when I go to apply for SNAP benefits, and they're like, ‘Oh, you make too much money.’ I’m like, how?”

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Many Long Islanders face a similar conundrum. They earn salaries that could be sustainable in some other parts of the country. But on Long Island, with its high cost of living, they still have difficulty putting food on the table. And their salaries sometimes exceed the income limits to get SNAP food benefits.

Formerly known as food stamps, the program has been instrumental in staving off hunger for millions. But experts say it is also ripe for changes to make it easier to apply for the benefit and more applicable to people who live in regions with high costs of living.

Together, this equation often leaves struggling residents in a dilemma. They either depend on steady visits to a food bank, and eat cheaper, less healthy foods — or go without.

Long Island is “a very hard place to live — and the choices that families have to make to make ends meet — it’s pretty tough,” said Michael Haynes with Long Island Cares — the Harry Chapin Regional Food Bank, one of the largest organizations offering food assistance in the region.

Moreover, there is the perception that food insecurity is not prevalent on Long Island — a place often noted for its pockets of affluence, said Vanessa Baird-Streeter, president and CEO of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island.

“People really don't think that, you know, food insecurity — or the need for food, really exists within suburban areas,” she said.

Food insecurity on the rise on LI

The coronavirus pandemic and its ensuing job losses helped to open a window on the prevalence of food insecurity nationally and on Long Island. Many who could previously afford to put food on the table found themselves at food pantries and applying for SNAP benefits.

To live on Long Island, a family of four should have an income of roughly $100,000 for “basic necessities,” according to a 2022 report from the Suffolk County Legislature’s Welfare to Work Commission.

Conversely, SNAP benefits are guided by thresholds that include an annual gross income limit of $45,000 in New York for a family of four, according to the state’s website.

For a household with an elderly or disabled person with dependent care expenses, the annual income limit for a family of four is $60,000.

The gap between the income thresholds and the cost of living on Long Island leaves many people without enough to buy the basics, according to policy experts, advocates and others.

In Suffolk County, 40% of the approximately 80,000 food-insecure residents earned above the gross income SNAP threshold in New York in 2021, according to Feeding America, a food bank network that operates across the country. That threshold is 200% above the poverty line. 

In Nassau, there are similar numbers, with 39% of the roughly 60,000 food-insecure residents above that same threshold in the same year, the organization said.

Sharon Sheppard, the founder of Sharon’s Food Pantry and assistant director of the MLK Center, said that of the almost 140 families it serves, about 60% have applied and were denied SNAP benefits.

“You might see somebody with a nurse's uniform [on] …, knowing that they work, and you're saying to yourself, ‘Why are they on line?’ ” Sheppard said.

When Debbie Loesch looks out at the people who fill up the lines at her Angels of Long Island pantry and farmers market in Mastic, she also notices many dual-income families.

“By the time they pay that $3,800-a-month rent, car insurance, heating oil, at the end of the month, there's no money left,” Loesch said.

And food is often on the cutting block.

But the pantry, decorated with a burnt-orange painted ceiling and hanging wicker baskets, hopes to bring those food options back into households. It operates as a free general store to the public, allowing its patrons to choose from items such as fresh produce and dairy and baked goods.

When the pantry opened in January, Loesch and her staff received an influx of families on their walk-in line, sometimes snaking outside around the corner hours before its 10 a.m. opening. She thought in a few months, the number of people would decrease.

It hasn’t.

Food banks a regular stop for some

About 15 years ago, food banks and pantries were more likely to be used for emergencies — places one would go when they faced acute crises like a sudden job loss or medical leave, said Jessica Rosati, vice president of programs and community service at Long Island Cares.

Their role since has shifted.

“We’re serving the people who need it the most, but then we’re serving additional people that are equally in need but are not eligible for government support,” she said.

Between January and most of April, Long Island Cares’ five satellite offices saw more than 17,000 visits — some of which can be the same person returning multiple times.

Only 630 visitors identified themselves as receiving SNAP benefits, she said, citing data kept by the organization.

Since at least 2020, Nassau County has had roughly 20,000 people apply for SNAP benefits yearly. More than 50% of cases in each of those years were denied, according to data from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

During that same time, Suffolk County had more than 30,000 people apply each year, with denials that ranged from 34% to 38%, the data showed.

A Nassau County spokesman declined to give the most common reasons for denial of claims.

Suffolk County did not respond. 

Haylee Hebenstreit, a clinical instructor at Stony Brook University’s School of Social Welfare, said even the process of applying for SNAP benefits is often difficult and intrusive.

Applying for the benefits in New York often amounts to a “black box,” where people often don’t understand why they are approved or denied.

“The guidelines, the eligibility, it's not meant to be understandable to the average person,” Hebenstreit said, noting later: “That should tell you something about what’s going on.”

At the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, staff are working to fill that black box with information.

Staff there help about 11,500 people each year on Long Island apply for SNAP benefits, including outreach, education and pre-screening, and assisting with some applications.

Case workers intently ask about their household size, income and immigration status to help determine if they are likely to get the benefits.

Maybe the parents are ineligible because of their immigration status, but not the child born in the United States. Or perhaps the family will have someone who is disabled in the house, which might allow the household to get benefits.

Sometimes, staff say, people don’t know that they’re eligible. But they acknowledge there are those in need who get denied.

Baird-Streeter, of the Health and Welfare Council, said those people often are given food cards, but she notes, “That's not going to be on a consistent basis or in perpetuity.”

Advocates say further regionalizing the federal income thresholds might enable more of those in need in places like Long Island to be eligible for food benefits. Currently, they say the income thresholds are too low to make big enough dents in food insecurity on Long Island. They want more reflective regional income guidelines based on the cost of living in each area.

“This way, more Americans in need can actually access the benefits and supports that they need to help them, you know, meet the need and go about living their everyday lives,” said Haynes, vice president of government relations, advocacy and social policy at Long Island Cares.

Making do without SNAP

To make do, Ivory plans meals around the meats that are in the MLK Center pantry that week. She cooks large portions of rice, leaving leftovers to last for days.

After volunteering at the center, she took the second job there when the assistant opportunity came up.

In total from the two jobs, she earns about $45,000 before taxes. And even with that income, there are still moments when paying for food is out of reach.

Her daughter does not receive a free or reduced school breakfast and lunch, which can cost up to $30 weekly. Sometimes her meal tab is in the negative.

“It’s embarrassing for her to have to go to school every day and be told, ‘You’re in the negative; you have a negative balance,’ ” Ivory said.

Children who live in households that can get SNAP are among those eligible for free and reduced lunches, the state said. 

And she continued applying again for SNAP benefits. A co-worker, she said, told her she would have more chances of being accepted the more she applied.

Applications for SNAP can be made online, but Ivory said she also has gone to a Department of Social Services office because it is easier to hand in forms that way. But consistently applying, especially while working two jobs, takes an emotional and physical toll.

“It's a lot to go into social services because it's like an ego thing. It's like, I can't provide for myself. I already feel less than just going into the building,” Ivory said. "Then to be told, ‘Yeah, I can't help you.’ ”

“It’s discouraging,” she added.

The system, she said, is set up to discourage people from advancing their lives because the more money you make, the less chance you have of getting SNAP benefits.

“It allows them to be dependent on it, but it doesn't allow you to get out of it,” said Ivory, who is looking into medical programs and going back to school.

On her day off — Fridays — Ivory is back at the MLK Center’s food pantry. This time, she said, to volunteer. She is both the observer and the affected party to food insecurity.

There, she sees people pick out items such as rice, beans and meats.

Perhaps they are making the same juggle she does — working multiple jobs, volunteering, and wanting more. Maybe they earn SNAP assistance, but not enough to cover their expenses.

Without knowing them, she understands. 

“Even if I don't know them on a first-name basis, I know the struggle,” she said.

  WHAT TO KNOW Many Long Islanders earn salaries that could be sustainable in some other parts of the country, but have difficulty putting food on the table in a region with a high cost of living.  Some earn too much to be eligible for food assistance through the SNAP program but still face food insecurity.  In Suffolk County, 40% of the approximately 80,000 food-insecure residents earn above the gross income SNAP threshold in New York, according to Feeding America, a food bank network that operates across the country. 

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