Changes to Lifeline programs put onus on customer to reapply and may lead to lost access

Duluth News Tribune reports…

State regulators worry changes to a federal assistance program could disrupt a discount phone and broadband service for some low-income Minnesotans.

Called Lifeline, the program launched in 1985 as a way to make landline telephone service more affordable for poorer households. It has since grown to offer broadband internet and wireless phone service as well.

Changes in the program require the customers to apply for access and prove eligibility, rather than allowing a provider to step in as proxy or support…

Under the old system, companies that offer Lifeline services in Minnesota could re-enroll their own customers for the program. Recipients of the five programs are automatically considered eligible.

Companies could then ask the Minnesota Department of Human Services to check their subscribers’ eligibility against their records of benefit recipients when it came time to re-enroll.

However, the new system requires Lifeline subscribers to enroll or register again for the program directly through the Universal Services Administrative Cooperative, or USAC, the nonprofit designated by the FCC to administer it. Some subscribers might already be familiar with the organization because it previously handled outreach and re-enrollment upon request for many of the companies that offer the program’s services.

But because the “the USAC is not a household name,” as a Minnesota Public Utilities Commission analysis put it, it tends to receive fewer responses from subscribers than companies do when contacting them on their own. The concern now is that the organization’s lack of brand recognition will persist even as it takes on new households to deal with.

Officials worry that, going forward, some Lifeline subscribers might simply dismiss mailings from the USAC or mistake its requests for personal information as a scam.

Not only would I worry about dismissing the request, I’d worry about scammers. It sounds as confusing as domain name renewals, which are ripe for fraud. Many of my clients worry every time they get a letter about a domain name and they are generally businesses, who at times have paid scammers money without realizing.

And the situation gets even more confusing…

And failure to reapply for the program could cause them to lose out on services for which they still qualify — at least temporarily. In an email, PUC executive secretary Will Seuffert said that de-enlisted subscribers will be able to re-apply for Lifeline immediately after they have been removed.

Complicating the transition is the fact that in Minnesota and several other states, the USAC has not yet connected to state databases of federal benefit recipients. Using the databases, the organization can automatically and electronically re-enroll qualifying Lifeline subscribers each year.

There is no official word on when the USAC will connect to Minnesota’s databases, which are maintained by the state Department of Human Services. A spokesperson for the organization said that its new application and re-enrollment system, called National Verifier, currently has access only to the federal Medicaid and Federal Public Housing program databases for automatic re-enrollment.

“For many consumers, recertification occurs without them knowing — if our electronic check finds you in a database, you’re recertified without any action from the consumer,” said USAC spokesperson Jaymie Gustafson. “For those who need to manually recertify, USAC will mail them the paper recertification form and follow up with up to three robocalls or reminder postcards.”

National Verifier, meanwhile, will launch in Minnesota in late March.

How many people will this impact and what’s the plan?

The PUC could not say how many Minnesotan’s subscriptions could be cancelled by mistake as a result of the switch. Only about 50,300 Minnesotans subscribed to the program as of January 2018, according to the PUC.

For most subscribers, the program provides a discount of $9.25 per month per household. Subscribers on tribal lands, however, can receive a monthly discount of up to about $34. Many of the companies that offer Lifeline in Minnesota, according to the PUC, also offer free voice, text and data services to their subscribers as well as a free cellphone.

Minnesota’s state Telephone Assistance Program, by contrast, offers landline phone discounts of up to $7.

At its meeting Thursday, the PUC considered a measure to direct companies that offer Lifeline to provide written notice to their customers about the transition to the USAC-managed enrollment system. Officials from other state agencies who were present for the meeting expressed support for the idea, which Gustafson said USAC recommends as well.

This entry was posted in Digital Divide, Funding, MN, Policy by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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