The time is now for Maine to stop stalling on transitioning the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, also known as WIC, toward the use of EBT cards instead of paper vouchers. A step in the right direction would be for Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew to abandon her quest for photo identification on the program benefit cards.
Twenty years ago, Maine had the lowest rate of infant mortality in the country, with only about four babies dying for of every thousand 1,000 born, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, Maine is 37th in the country, with nearly seven babies dying for every 1,000 born. Tragically, our infant mortality rate has gone up despite major advances in medical care. We must take immediate steps to reverse this trend.
WIC is a critically important program to improve the health of pregnant women and infants. Since 1972, WIC has provided vouchers to purchase nutritious foods to low-income pregnant and nursing mothers and their young children. In Maine, more than 20,000 low-income women and children receive WIC benefits. WIC is a crucial safeguard to combat infant mortality. The program provides healthy and nutritious foods for low-income women of childbearing age, pregnant women and their infants. It influences lifetime nutrition and health behaviors in a targeted, high-risk population of mothers and young children. The program provides nutrition and breastfeeding education and support as well as referrals to medical and social services.
Maine needs to move quickly toward meeting the 2020 federal deadline to transition WIC to the use of EBT cards. In states where they have transitioned their WIC programs to EBT cards, WIC recipients have benefited from the switch as they have increased flexibility and choice, and they are able to shop more frequently for the foods their family needs, according to a report by the Altarum Institute. WIC participants and vendors report that the use of EBT cards makes purchasing nutritious foods easier for women and their babies, and it makes it easier for the grocers and other vendors to supply food to the program participants.
Unfortunately, Maine has already forfeited $1.4 million in federal funds made available to upgrade the WIC program. Our state is far behind the curve in making this important transition because of roadblocks thrown up by the LePage administration. Most recently, certain state officials have insisted that WIC EBT cards include a photo. It is unnecessary and could discourage participation in a successful evidence-based program that has been providing nutritious food packages to low-income women and children since 1972.
Studies show that adding a photo to a WIC card is administratively difficult and expensive, complicates the ability to authorize more than one person to redeem benefits, and fails to yield promised savings. It is deeply unfortunate that our state is ignoring data and evidence in favor of unproven strategies to prevent fraud and misuse that will only serve as a barrier to nutritious food for mothers and babies.
Maine’s mothers and infants deserve better. Infant Mortality is associated with a variety of factors, such as maternal health, access and quality to medical care, socioeconomic conditions, and public health practice. It serves as an important indicator of the health of a state. Given our poor infant mortality rate, Maine must examine and remove any potential barriers to maternal and child health. The failure to move quickly and aggressively to transition WIC program to EBT cards creates an unnecessary and unacceptable barrier to nutritious food is an impediment for WIC participants. Let’s give this at risk population every chance to have a healthy pregnancies and give Maine’s infants the best start in life by improving WIC for all mothers and their children.
Eileen Delaney is the chair of the Maternal and Child Health Committee of the March of Dimes.