LEWISTON, Maine — The federal government has asked Maine to delay its plan to put photos on public assistance electronic benefits transfer cards until it can fully review and approve the state’s plan.
Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said late Friday that the plan is critical to the prosecution of welfare fraud and her office will proceed as scheduled.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture warning, sent to Mayhew and dated Friday, urges Maine not to rush into the plan because it risks losing federal financial participation and “litigation against the state should the state’s implementation of the photo EBT card violate provisions of the Food and Nutrition Act or SNAP regulations.”
Hours after receiving that letter, Mayhew responded in writing to Patricia Dombroski, interim regional administration for the USDA’s Northeast region, that moving forward as planned “is in the best interest of Maine.”
Electronic benefits transfer cards are loaded with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits, which can be withdrawn as cash and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, which can be used to buy food.
The process to put photos on EBT cards is scheduled to begin in Bangor on Monday, and to be expanded to all other regions of Maine starting in July. The plan is part of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration’s push to cut down on fraud and abuse of the system.
According to Mayhew, federal regulations allow the use of photographs on EBT cards, and she told Dombroski that “Maine has chosen to move forward with this initiative in order to strengthen program integrity, something that has been strongly encouraged by the Food and Nutrition Service.”
Mayhew also told Dombroski that the decision to implement the plan in Bangor first, rather than across the state, will give Maine the opportunity to identify potential weaknesses and to make needed adjustments and corrections before statewide implementation.
“Quite frankly,” Mayhew told Dombroski, “your opposition to Maine beginning this project defies common-sense logic.”
Earlier this month, after learning of the move to use photo EBT cards, Jessica Shahin, associate administrator for SNAP at the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service’s Boston offices, asked Maine to produce a written plan for how it intended to implement the process, which Maine has done.
However, according to Friday’s letter from Dombroski, her office is still reviewing Maine’s response and, “at this time, we do not know that they adequately address FNS’ concerns, including sufficient safeguards to avoid negative consequences for clients and retailers.”
The USDA sent additional questions to Mayhew on April 21, but, Dombroski said, “Since that time we have seen press reports indicating that you plan on implementing this process as early as next week,” despite clear indications from the federal government in writing and by phone that it had concerns about Maine’s plan.
According to Dombroski, “ensuring that basic implementation steps, including client and retailer notification and issuance of state policy, have been completed is critical to successful rollout,” but Maine has not yet proved to the feds it has reached that point.
EBT cards are similar to bank debit cards and can be used to make point-of-sale purchases or to withdraw cash from ATMs.
On Friday, Maine Equal Justice Partners issued a statement on the USDA’s warning, noting the USDA has made it clear “that the LePage administration is moving too quickly,” according to Sara Gagne-Holmes, executive director for MEJP.
“If Governor LePage moves forward with his politically motivated effort to place photographs on EBT cards, he will jeopardize tens of thousands of federal dollars used to help administer a program that feeds thousands of Mainers, including children and seniors,” she said.
Last week, Mayhew said “placing photos on the Maine EBT card supports this administration’s efforts to strengthen the integrity of our public assistance programs.” And, she said, it will “help our staff to verify the identity of the benefit recipient and will be helpful in cases where cards have been illegally sold or when multiple cards are in the possession of an individual.”
On Friday, she pointed out that photos on EBT cards “can also help benefit recipients by providing a more formal identification card for those who do not possess a driver’s license.”
Chris Hastedt of MEJP has raised concerns at what he called the speed with which Maine DHHS has proposed the photo ID initiative, including “the lack of any opportunity for public comment, and the agency’s failure to follow established rulemaking procedures under Maine’s Administrative Procedures Act.”
“It is nothing short of reckless to shortcut these procedures when something as basic as food and hunger are at stake,” Hastedt said.
Maine’s EBT cards now feature scene photographs of Maine, but the new cards will have a white background with blue banner and photo ID. And, the new cards will carry a disclosure that clearly indicates misuse is a crime, which is not something that appears on current cards.
New York and Massachusetts are the only two states that now require photo ID on EBT cards, and part of the reason the federal government is watching Maine so closely is because of problems implementing those photo benefit cards.
Dombroski’s written request not to proceed with implementation followed a phone call from her office to DHHS on Thursday in which her agency expressed concerns with Maine’s plan. “Those concerns,” Dombroski wrote, “are grounded in recent experience in monitoring another state’s implementation of photo EBT cards; implementation which resulted in significant negative impacts for clients, retailers and the state agency.”
Although she did not detail what those negative impacts were, Dombroski said “it is in your state’s best interest to wait until FNS has had an opportunity to fully review the additional information” that the state has already provided, allowing FNS to determine whether Maine had addressed its concerns and the needs of SNAP participants and the state’s authorized SNAP retailers.
“Maine should not rush into implementation,” she warned.
According to DHHS records, the Maine system includes about 220,000 active EBT cards, and under the plan provided to USDA, certain groups, including the disabled, blind and those 60 and older, will not be required to have a photo on their card. The cards will look similar to the photo EBT cards, but will read “Valid without Photo.”
Advocates for the poor have been vocal in their opposition to the plan, fearing EBT users will face discrimination and humiliation when using their cards, but Mayhew has been firm that putting photos on EBT cards is necessary to combat fraud. And, she said, although Maine will be among the first states to do this, she predicts the trend will move across the country.
Mayhew told Dombroski Maine is doing “all that we can to ensure that the transition to photo EBT cards is as smooth as possible for those who receive benefits.”
Under federal SNAP rules, cardholders can give a family member permission to purchase food on their behalf, but the card user must still enter the personal identification number at the point of sale.
It is illegal for EBT cardholders to sell or trade their benefit cards.