AUGUSTA — A federal agency is asking Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to provide details on its efforts to pilot a new benefits card system that would include recipients’ photos.

The state uses electronic benefits transfer cards to dispense a variety of public assistance, including the largely federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps, and the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the SNAP program through its Food and Nutrition Service. On Feb. 26, the service wrote to the commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services requesting information.

Among other things, the two-page letter asks DHHS for information in eight specific areas.

“The addition of photos to the EBT card, especially in a State that has never done so before, is a very sensitive issue for clients, advocates and retailers,” wrote Jessica Shahin, an associate administer for SNAP. “Because the complex legal, operational, and civil rights issues that have arisen around the implementation of photo EBT cards elsewhere, as well as the potential risk for litigation should something go wrong, FNS must work closely with DHHS to ensure that implementation is seamless and within the bounds of law and regulation.”

Shahin asked DHHS to show with a written plan how implementing a photo EBT card process “would not adversely affect day-to-day SNAP operations.”

FNS asked the state to respond within 45 days.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew has said the state has begun to implement a pilot program, but she has not revealed where the program is being launched nor how.

Other states that have implemented photo programs for EBT cards have seen a variety of problems.

Massachusetts began to implement a $2.5 million photo EBT program in November 2013. The program got off to a rocky start. The Food and Nutrition Service complained that many who were eligible for SNAP benefits were not being allow to access them. 

Of the 220,000 welfare recipients eligible for SNAP benefits, only 170,000 were quickly issued new photo cards. Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance used Registry of Motor Vehicles photos for those cards, but 50,000 recipients had no photos on file.

About 7,500 cards mailed out to recipients went undelivered and were returned to the state, while another 700 were erroneously deactivated by the state’s vendor, according to a December 2013 report by Masslive.com’s State House News Service.

Kevin Concannon, U.S. undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services for the USDA is a former commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. He served under Democratic governors.

He is critical of the photo plan, based on the problems Massachusetts has experienced.

It was a “rocky rollout,” he said last week, partially because a cardholder’s family members are also allowed to access the benefits.

“We have written to the state of Maine and advised that they need to review (with us) what they propose to do,” Concannon said. “Stores need to be trained ahead of time on what can be expected. We need to make sure they’re not kicking out groups of people improperly.”

It remained unclear how Maine intends to place photos on its EBT cards. Also still unknown is how much it would cost the state.

Advocates for the poor have said that under federal rules, the state may not be able to make the program mandatory and that some SNAP recipients could opt out of the photo program.

In her letter to Maine, Shahin questioned whether a person who is a caregiver or guardian for a SNAP recipient but is ineligible for SNAP benefits would be required to have a photo EBT card to access their dependent’s benefits.

Shahin noted that under federal law, Maine would have to ensure that merchants who accepted photo EBT cards did not discriminate by not checking photo identification for customers who used bank debit or credit cards.

Maine’s EBT system includes 223,891 active cards, according to DHHS spokesman John Martins. And 7,633 Maine families receive TANF benefits, down from 14,391 in 2010, a 47 percent decrease.

Martins said those with active EBT cards include some who no longer receive benefits but have funds on their cards that have not been expended.

In an email message Tuesday, Martins said he believed DHHS had responded to the USDA’s request about the photo program’s details, but he was seeking confirmation from other DHHS officials.

[email protected]

Bangor Daily News State House Bureau Chief Chris Cousins contributed to this story.

USDA letter to Maine DHHS regarding SNAP and photos on EBT cards


filed under: