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Benefit Cards With Photo ID Created Despite Request from the Feds to Hold Off
04/28/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

The LePage Administration began issuing welfare benefit cards with photos today, ignoring a request from the federal government to hold off on the voluntary pilot program. Administration officials say putting photos on EBT cars will cut down on the fraud and abuse in the system. But in a letter to the state late last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned that Maine could lose federal funding or face potential litigation, if the photos violate regulations under the Supplemental Food and Nutrition Act known as SNAP.

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The New Maine EBT Card with Photo Identification

Starting in July, SNAP recipients statewide will be required to have a photo taken when they come in for the annual recertification of their EBT cards. Meanwhile, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is testing out the new system on a more limited, trial basis in the Bangor area. There are roughly 17,000 SNAP households in the region. The state is sending out staggered notices, inviting people to come in and get new cards. At the DHHS office in Bangor, a middle aged woman meets with case manager Sue Sapiel.

Ella Hunter lives in Dover Foxcroft. She gets monthly SNAP benefits and heard about the new EBT photo cards on the Sunday news. She's sitting now, in a chair in front of a blue backdrop. Sapiel gives her instructions.

"Would you look right at the camera please?" Sapiel said.

A few second pass and a small machine on Sapiel's desk begins to hum.

Sapiel: "There's your new card. And I just need you to sign this, saying you received it."
Ella Hunter: "I can use it today, then?" Sapiel: "Yep, you can. Same pin number. Same rules apply as the old one."

Goveror Paul LePage has made cracking down on welfare fraud and abuse a key part of his agenda. Democrats in the state Legislature have been unwilling to back the governor's legislative approach on this issue. So LePage is using his executive authority to find some ways around all the opposition in the state house.

Bethany Hamm's office is overseeing the EBT photo card pilot. Hamm runs the Office of Family Independence at Maine DHHS.

"For those who are currently trafficking their EBT card, they will be less inclined to traffic their card with their photo on it," Hamm said.

New York and Massachusetts are the only other states in the nation that put photos on EBT cards. Last Friday, the interim head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Northeast Office sent a letter to Maine DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, asking the state to hold off on its pilot program. The Food Nutrition Service, the letter stated, needed more time to review Maine's plan to make sure it doesn't violate federal law. The USDA's Northeast Office did not respond to a request for comment by airtime. But Chris Hastedt, public policy director at the group Maine Equal Justice Partners, said the federal government is right to be concerned.

"It appears that the strategy here, on the initiative here, is to ask grocers or retailers to become enforcers," said Hastedt.

Hastedt said asking retailers to do that would force them to violate two provisions of the Food and Nutrition Act. One prevents discrimination in a grocery or convenience store checkout line.

"By requiring that retailers don't treat people using an EBT card, to purchase food under the SNAP program, any differently than anyone else in line using a credit or debit card."

If federal law prevents grocers singling out SNAP recipients for scrutiny, Hastedt wonders how photo cards can be an effective deterrent against fraud. Federal law, she also notes, allows anyone in a SNAP household to use an EBT card to do the family shopping.

"We certainly have heard the federal government's concern around placing photos on EBT Cards," said Hastedt.

"We believe, though, that is is important to move forward with the pilot project, even though they've asked that we hold off," said Hamm.

Hamm said federal officials are especially worried that access problems that plagued Massachusetts rollout of EBT card photos would happen here in Maine. But she said participants in Maine's pilot walk out with their new cards, within minutes of having their photos taken, with no interruption to their benefits. In its letter, the USDA warned that Maine could be the target of litigation or lose federal funding, if its program violates the law. Hamm says attorneys at Maine DHHS stand ready to advise the department on how to handle any potential legal action.


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