Between April and August of 2011, the food supplement program paid 53,000 households more than federal regulations allowed, according to DHHS officials. That represents about a third of the program’s beneficiaries in Maine.

Recipients will have to pay back up to $80 per household in benefits. That repayment will be made through smaller benefit distributions in coming months.

The overpayments went out after the federal government, which pays for and runs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, decided to cut back the portion of benefits that helps recipients pay their utility bills. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had temporarily boosted those benefits as oil prices rose to record levels last year.

Maine law prevented DHHS, which administers the program, from reducing benefits until a formal rule change in the program was made. That took place in August, four months after the cut should have kicked in.

Now, the USDA wants the funds back.

“We could have been more proficient and efficient in getting the rules passed,” said John Martins, a spokesman for DHHS.

The department was also waiting for the feds to say whether Maine would have to recoup the money, he said.

DHHS is looking into further adjusting the program’s rules to avoid winding up in a similar situation in the future, Martins said.

“For most people, anything that’s considered to be a reduction in benefits is alarming,” he said. At the same time, recipients weren’t entitled to the benefits, Martins said.

DHHS sent letters to the affected recipients this week. The money will be deducted from their benefits in small amounts each month until the full amount is paid back, he said.

Benefits will then return to their regular levels, Martins said.

DHHS officials are scheduled to speak today with officials from the USDA about the overpayments, he said.

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