On appeal from a Final Decision of the Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development, Docket No. S410506.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 4, 2009
Before Judges Cuff and Baxter.
Claimants, G.B.-P. and S.B.-P.,*fn1 appeal from a March 20, 2008 final decision of the New Jersey Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development (DHS), accepting an Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) determination that the monthly internet service fee claimants sought to deduct from their income to increase the amount of their food stamp (FS) benefits was not an allowable medical cost.*fn2 We affirm.
Claimant sustained severe brain trauma from a 2002 cerebral aneurism, and consequently suffers from impaired memory, confusion, attention deficits, anxiety, balance problems, and insomnia. She copes with those problems by using a computer purchased for her by the Traumatic Brain Injury Fund. She uses both her computer, and the internet service to which the computer is connected, to communicate with her state agency case managers, medical professionals, state brain injury associations and a brain injury support group. She also uses an internet-based instant-messaging service to receive biofeedback therapy from a doctor located in Brick Township, a considerable distance away from her home in Hunterdon County. In addition, claimant uses an online calendar to remind her of essential tasks, such as medical appointments and taking her medicine, and sends out as many as fifty e-mails each day related to her illness. Claimant's doctor described her need for access to internet service as "imperative."
The purpose of the FS program is "to promote the general welfare and to safeguard the health and well being of the population by raising the levels of nutrition among low-income households." N.J.A.C. 10:87-1.1. Individuals enrolled in the FS program are permitted to deduct medical costs, including costs of medical equipment, from their income for the purpose of calculating the specific amount of FS benefits that the household will receive. The applicable regulation provides:
(i) The following items are allowable medical costs:
Prescription drugs when prescribed by a licensed practitioner authorized under State law and other over-the-counter medication (including insulin) when approved by a licensed practitioner or other qualified health professional; in addition, costs of medical supplies, sick-room equipment (including rental) or other prescribed equipment are deductible[.] [N.J.A.C. 10:87-5.10(a)(3)(i)(3) (emphasis added).]
Interpretation of the term "costs of . . . other prescribed equipment," as set forth in N.J.A.C. 10:87-5.10(a)(i)(3), is the sole issue on appeal.
In May 2007, during a periodic reverification of claimant's FS benefits, she attempted to treat her monthly internet service fee as a medical expense and deduct it from her household income. Had Hunterdon County Board of Social Services (HCBSS) agreed to treat claimant's internet service fee in such a fashion, claimant's monthly FS benefits would have been increased. On July 30, 2007, HCBSS notified claimant that although she would continue to receive FS benefits, the dollar amount of those benefits would not be increased because internet service is not deductible as a medical cost under N.J.A.C. 10:87-5.10(a)(3)(i)(3). Claimant's request for a hearing was transmitted to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL), which set the matter down for an evidentiary hearing before an ALJ.
During that hearing, HCBSS explained why it had refused to treat claimant's internet service fee as a medical cost. HCBSS also provided an e-mail response it had received from Ellen Thaler, Program Specialist, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Thaler explained that if a physician declares a "telephone aid/internet connection" medically necessary, the medical deduction would "apply to the actual installation and monthly costs directly associated with the system." Thaler further explained that the "medical deduction applies to fees associated with the actual device, not the monthly telephone (or in this case internet) service." Claimant's testimony included a description of her illness and an explanation of her need for an internet connection.
In his February 20, 2008 decision, the ALJ agreed with HCBSS that claimant's monthly internet service cost is not deductible as a medical cost under N.J.A.C. 10:87-5.10(a)(3)(i)(3). Although the ALJ did not dispute claimant's "need for internet service," he explained that N.J.A.C. 10:87-5.10(a)(3)(i)(3) only "concerns costs for prescribed equipment," and concluded that claimant's internet services "do not fall within the language of 'prescribed equipment' and are, therefore, not an allowed medical cost." Shortly thereafter, DHS adopted the ALJ's decision, and affirmed his ...