LePage administration defends photo EBT cards

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AUGUSTA (AP) — Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is firing back at the federal government over its policy of putting welfare recipients’ photos on the cards used to access food stamps, which federal officials have warned could cause Maine to lose some program funding.

In a Dec. 18 letter to the Food and Nutrition Service obtained by The Associated Press, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew responded to several concerns raised by the agency last month and blasted officials for consistently putting up “roadblocks and barriers” in the state’s effort to prevent fraud and abuse.

“If FNS will not permit Maine to pursue program reforms allowed by regulation and law that improve the Food Stamp program in Maine without the threat of reduced funding or further investigations, we will have to re-evaluate our partnership with the federal government,” Mayhew said in the letter to the FNS Northeast regional administrator, Kurt Messner, which was provided to the AP after a Freedom of Access Act request.

A spokesman for Mayhew didn’t immediately respond to questions Wednesday about what steps the department would consider taking.

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In a letter to Mayhew last month, Messner laid out several issues in the state’s program and demanded that she respond with a corrective action plan within 45 days. He said that the failure to fix the problems could cause Maine to lose money the federal government provides to administer the program.

FNS rebuked Mayhew’s department for handing out information that would make recipients believe that they must have their photos placed on the cards, even though the program is voluntary.

It also said that Maine’s policy could have a “chilling effect” on parents applying for benefits for their eligible children and demanded that the state stop requiring face-to-face interviews for recipients who have opted out of the program.

Mayhew said in her response that a mailing that said the photos were mandatory was distributed out as part of the pilot program in Bangor, before the new photo cards began being handed out statewide. Since then, information given to recipients has not said that the photos are required, she said.

But she said the state will not stop requiring the face-to-face interviews, calling them “an important part of program integrity” and a “requirement of the federal program” and blasted FNS for its opposition to the policy.

“The series of impromptu visits, cease-and-desist letters and other opposition tactics thinly veiled as ‘serious concerns’ put a chilling effect on states who want to implement this common sense reform,” Mayhew wrote.

A spokesman for FNS didn’t immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment about whether Maine appropriately addressed the agency’s concerns or if it is still at risk of losing funding.

A cut in administrative funding would mean a loss of millions of dollars. The federal government pays half the administrative costs for the program, which in fiscal year 2013 was about $8.9 million. FNS, which fully funds the benefits that Maine residents receive, has said that money would not be affected.

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