AUGUSTA — State officials here have kicked around possible reforms to the welfare benefits system aimed at preventing fraud and abuse.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin said she and others responsible for investigating and prosecuting welfare cheats have discussed the notion of putting photos on EBT (electronic benefits) cards, but realized that wouldn’t work because recipients such as shut-ins can hand off their cards to surrogates to shop for them, legally using their PIN numbers.

But enforcers say one of the most frustrating aspects of the welfare benefits system involves uses that, they say, should be illegal but aren’t.

A welfare recipient who receives benefits from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or Additional Support for People in Retraining and Education (ASPIRE) can walk into a supermarket and legally use their EBT card to buy a case of beer or a pack of cigarettes.

Robbin said she was “shocked” when she learned about the allowance. Lewiston Police Chief Michael Bussiere said he was disappointed to learn it was legal.

A spokesman for DHHS said there are no restrictions on the use of the benefits. In fact, TANF and ASPIRE money, under federal law, can be used for anything. DHHS is not allowed to require TANF or ASPIRE recipients to submit receipts showing that the federally mandated benefits were spent on intended items or services.

John Martins, director of communications at DHHS, said state authorities are researching options to help clamp down on purchases of alcohol, tobacco and other items with TANF or ASPIRE money on their EBT cards.

“We’ve been meeting with a DHHS fraud group every week and looking at both of those things, statutes that we need to change and improve, the systems we need to change, and also look at … where are the loopholes to game the system and how do we close those within the authority the state has under these federally mandated programs,” Robbin said.

Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins remembered when a prisoner at his Auburn jail was being booked several years ago. The man was allowed to use the jail’s ATM machine to withdraw cash. When his jailers realized heintended to use his EBT card to pay his bail, they balked — even though it is legal — and the man stayed in jail.

“That element is always going to find a way to get around the system,” Desjardins said.

Soon after, jail officials contacted the ATM’s vendor to reprogram the machine so that it wouldn’t allow EBT card transactions, Desjardins said.

In Washington, D.C., a bill that overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House and is currently before the Senate Finance Committee would require states that get federal welfare money to maintain policies and practices necessary to prevent the use of state TANF money in any transaction at a liquor store, casino or gambling establishment or strip club, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said. That bill, called the Welfare Integrity Now for Children and Families Act, establishes penalties for states that don’t report on their implementation of or enforcement of those polices and practices.

John Graham Jr., a spokesman for Maine U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, said the legislation, which Michaud supported, is a “step in the right direction.” 

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