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Senator Whelan, D-Atlantic, speaking at a panel discussion on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Jim Whelan and Senator Ronald Rice that would establish a Medicaid program to provide housing-related services to individuals experiencing chronic homelessness was approved today by the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.

Currently, individuals experiencing chronic homelessness are generally entitled to medical assistance benefits through the Medicaid program, which are often necessary to treat mental health and substance use disorders that may both cause and be exacerbated by homelessness. This bill, S-1901, is intended to capitalize on federal Medicaid reimbursements to improve services provided to individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, while making available State, county, and local resources that can be repurposed to support other services for the homeless.

“Promoting community integration for those who are suffering from chronic homelessness is crucial to keeping them safe and healthy,” said Senator Whelan (D-Atlantic). “By creating a program in New Jersey, with available federal funding, that supports individuals who are experiencing homelessness, we can make a meaningful difference in their lives.”

Under the bill, the program would include State-level collaborative activities, intended to develop closer relationships among the various State, county, and local programs that provide services to individuals experiencing homelessness. The bill would also require the program to provide individual housing transition services and individual housing and tenancy sustaining services to those experiencing chronic homelessness. The bill would provide several specific services that may be provided, but permits the Commissioner of Human Services to determine the appropriate service package and service delivery modalities.

“We have communities in our backyards that have large homeless populations, and we can’t just look the other way and ignore the problem,” said Senator Rice (D-Essex). “We need to support these individuals into permanent housing, and this bill will do so by making available services that will help their transition and help them sustain tenancy.”

Although the federal government does not allow federal Medicaid reimbursement for room and board expenses, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued guidance to state Medicaid offices in June 2015 on the types of housing-related services for which states can claim Medicaid reimbursement.  These could include helping homeless individuals apply for housing to housing transition services to tenancy sustaining services like coaching on developing and maintaining relationships with landlords and neighbors and assistance in resolving disputes to reduce risk of eviction.

Communities with large homeless populations are increasingly turning to a strategy known as “housing first,” in which homeless individuals are helped into a permanent home before or at the same time as other services address the medical and behavioral problems that may provide obstacles to long-term successful tenancy. Research suggests that the lack of a stable home may limit the effectiveness of these treatments, which thereby makes it less likely that an individual will be able to live a stable, healthy life.

The bill passed the Senate Health Committee by a vote of 9-0. It now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for consideration.

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