Politics & Government

Federal help for heating bills, food threatened by shutdown, Kentucky officials say

A street is blocked at Mammoth Cave National Park, Tuesday, Oct.. 1, 2013, in Mammoth Cave, Ky. National Parks across the country are closed due to the federal government shutdown.
A street is blocked at Mammoth Cave National Park, Tuesday, Oct.. 1, 2013, in Mammoth Cave, Ky. National Parks across the country are closed due to the federal government shutdown.

Low-income Kentucky families who get federal help with their home heating bills, food for young children or child care could be the first to suffer from the partial shutdown of the U.S. government, officials said Wednesday.

Federal assistance for home heating bills is expected to be delayed by a week or more instead of arriving during the first week of November, said Rob Jones, executive director of Community Action Kentucky.

The shutdown also is expected to affect some Kentucky programs that weatherize people's homes in preparation for winter, Jones said.

The Community Action Council, which serves Fayette and some surrounding counties, has enough money to keep only 11 Head Start child care centers open through Friday, executive director Malcolm Ratchford told the Herald-Leader on Wednesday. The affected centers, in Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Scott counties, employ about 175 staff members and care for more than 1,400 children.

If the shutdown continues through the weekend, "we don't know how we are going to pay people" on Monday, Ratchford said.

He said he was meeting with the agency's board Thursday to discuss "our cash-flow challenge" regarding Head Start.

Ratchford said there were several questions, such as "are we reducing hours, are we going to close our doors," and is "our staff coming to work with the expectation that they may be retroactively paid?"

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, continued serving people in Lexington and Kentucky on Wednesday. However, an online report outlining the White House contingency plan for the shutdown says no additional federal funds are available to support WIC.

WIC is a short-term intervention program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose website was shut down Wednesday. Women who are pregnant, recently had a baby, are breast-feeding or have a child younger than 5 are eligible for federal funds

At this point, the Kentucky WIC Program is providing services, said Cabinet for Health and Family Services spokeswoman Anya Weber. The program averaged 130,000 WIC participants in 2012, she said.

Lexington-Fayette Health Department spokesman Kevin Hall said that as of Wednesday, "the federal government shutdown has not affected Lexington's WIC program" or primary health care clinics.

"We are in regular communication with the state to monitor the situation and will continue to operate as normal," Hall said.

Last year, the health department served about 7,000 people in the WIC program, he said.

However, the White House contingency report said that while states could have some funds available from infant formula rebates or other sources to continue operations for a week or so, they probably would be unable to sustain operations for a long er period.

Meanwhile, Hall said primary health clinics at the health department remained open "for business as usual" Wednesday.

"If the temporary federal shutdown causes any change in this status, we will let staff and patients know immediately," Hall said.

For now, the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services "can maintain business as usual in the near term" in administering major federal grants, said Weber.

She said Medicaid, child support and Social Security Administration programs have funding to continue. She said they are evaluating each of their major federal grants to determine how long they can continue. The process of completing the cabinet-wide analysis will take a day or so, Weber said.

"A number of state programs that rely on federal funds have prior-year grant balances they are still spending," Weber said. "For those, as long as the federal draw process functions, we should be OK. However, not all programs have prior-year grant balances."

The Cabinet also is working with the state controller's office to determine cash needs if state funds must be used to fill gaps in federal funding sources as a result of the federal shutdown, she said.

What do you think?

We asked: How is the federal government shutdown affecting you?

■ "Nothing noticed, just like the 21 day shutdown in 1995-1996. Except more finger-pointing and no solutions to the problems that existed then, and still exist now." — Alan Ray

■ "It will affect my VA benefits for school." — Jake Mauchline

■ "My dad who works for the federal government had surgery last week and is on sick leave, which isn't protected by the shutdown. He was furloughed the day of the shutdown and now has no income." — Shannon Bear

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