Inquiries mount at Vineyard Healthcare Access

County begins to offer unemployment services.

Vineyard Healthcare Access director Sarah Kuh on a Zoom meeting with county commissioners Wednesday night. — Rich Saltzberg

Vineyard Healthcare Access and Dukes County Socials Services are both seeing upticks in requests for services. MassHealth applications are also up, Vineyard Healthcare Access director Sarah Kuh told Dukes County commissioners Wednesday night. 

“We are seeing a lot of people lose their insurance because their jobs are ending and we’re trying to pivot and be able help them as quickly as possible,” she said. Despite the pandemic, she said she and her staff are still going strong. 

“We are continuing to provide our full array of services remotely,” she said. ”We are all working from home. And that is not without its challenges but we are soldiering through…”

Kuh, who is also a supervisor for Dukes County Social Services, said she’s seeing an increased volume of SNAP applications as folks lose their jobs. Some people who received them are also “panicking,” she said, but she has been able to give them good news on that front.

“I was able to give them the good news that every single household that’s currently active with SNAP will be automatically shifted over to the maximum benefit,” she said. “Someone who might have only been getting $20 a month, for whatever reason, especially people in Island Elderly Housing, they’ll get the maximum benefit for the number of people in their household. That’s really good news. They’re also putting a freeze on renewals and recertifications, so that people, if they don’t turn in a renewal, or recertification — their benefits will be extended six months, at least.”

Kuh said the county is delving into unemployment benefits for Islanders. This is something that Dukes County Manager Martina Thornton later said was “absolutely new.”

This comes as 6.6 million people have applied for unemployment nationally and Massachusetts had nearly 200,000 new claims in the last week.

Kuh said the county could potentially become an “adjunct unemployment provider.”

She went on to say, “Unemployment will be giving additional dollars to people who have an active unemployment claim, but the state doesn’t yet have the mechanisms to provide that funding,” Kuh said. “It will have it. It will probably have it in a number of weeks. But it hasn’t happened yet.” 

“It’s kind of a tricky system” and it’s “super-taxed” by the number of people pouring into it, she said. 

She also expressed concern unemployment benefits could have unintended consequences for some folks. “Those additional unemployment benefits potentially could really screw people up for other public benefits,” she said. “These benefits are based generally on a formula of income, number of people in the household, so while i’m sure people will be grateful to have the increased income from unemployment, it could cost them their health insurance potentially … could cost them their food stamps.”

She stressed the truth of the matter is still unclear, however, and she’s looking into it.