Last year, DHHS made an error in how it figured Supplemental Nutrition Assistance benefits for just over 70,000 Maine households. The mistake was $20 a month for each household but that added up to more than $4.8 million. After discovering the error, the state notified those who had received the overpayments that it planned to recover the money, but deducting it from future benefits. But low income advocacy groups complained that the state was responsible for the error, and should bear the cost. Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who serves on the House Agriculture Committee that oversees the program agreed and wrote the agency expressing her concern.
“They are not allowed to ask the recipients, who didn't make any mistakes, to pay back about $80," Pingree said. "For a lot of people, who are just barely getting by and dependent on food stamps, that's a lot of money and we were hearing from them. And the federal department has now told the state, You can't ask them to pay it, you made the mistake and you have to correct the error.”
DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew is furious at the Food and Nutrition Service and its demand for payment, and said the state will appeal. She said her office sought to recover the money from the recipients in the first place, because it was told to do so by the Food and Nutrition Service.
“We will be appealing this decision, it is not only inconsistent with the practice of FNS, it is inconsistent with a letter we received from this same federal agency six months prior demanding that we collect the overpayment," Mayhew said.
Mayhew is upset at the assertion in the letter That the state has a systemic problem in how it handles the food stamp program. The very same letter, she said, praises the state’s administration of the program.
“In the exact same letter, that they issued this week, they are commending the state of Maine for our system in administering this federal program and that we are eligible to receive bonus funding for how well we have administered the program,” she said.
Read the March 30 Letter from the USDA Food & Nutrition Service
Read the September 24 Letter from the USDA Food & Nutrition Service
Read the Response from Maine DHHS
Mayhew charges the position taken by the Food and Nutrition Service in this case is contrary to previous actions taken in Maine and other states. She said past policy has been to tell states to invest any penalties in improving the state system, and not to demand repayment. Congresswoman Pingree said she understands the fiscal concerns of the state but believes the decision by the agency was a good one for Mainers on food stamps, who were caught in the middle.
“It's not a good situation for anyone but it's a better outcome than it could have been," said Pingree. "And I think it's a reminder that in these big, complicated, federal programs the state has to have computer systems and experts on how to administrate them and do their best not to get into these situations.”
The state must file its appeal within ten days. It then must file its arguments with an appeals board set up to hear state appeals of rulings within 30 days. The Board THEN has another 30 days to issue it’s ruling, which can be appealed to the courts.