AUGUSTA — The Maine Department of Health and Human Services said Friday it intends to move forward with a Gov. Paul LePage plan to put photographs on the state’s electronic benefits transfer cards.

EBT cards are similar to bank debit cards and are used by the state to issue a variety of welfare benefits, including Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The cards can be used to make point-of-sale purchases or to withdraw cash from ATMs.

The process of adding photos will begin April 28 in the department’s Bangor Office, DHHS spokesman John Martins said.  

“All new cardholders in Bangor will have their photo taken when their benefits are approved and will be issued a photo ID card immediately,” Martins wrote in a news release issued Friday. Those already receiving benefits will be contacted by Maine’s Office for Family Independence in the next week or so and informed of how to get a new photo ID card, according to DHHS.

In July, all DHHS regional offices will begin taking photos.

According to DHHS records, the Maine system includes about 220,000 active EBT cards.

The push to put photo IDs on the cards is part of the LePage administration’s push to cut down on fraud and abuse of the system. It was part of a four-pronged approach LePage and Republican lawmakers had attempted to put in place during the recently closed 2014 lawmaking session.

“Placing photos on the Maine EBT card supports this administration’s efforts to strengthen the integrity of our public assistance programs,’’ said DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew in a prepared statement. “The photo will also help our staff to verify the identity of the benefit recipient and will be helpful in cases where cards have been illegally sold or when multiple cards are in the possession of an individual.”

The new cards, according to the release, will feature a white background and a blue banner, and will replace the former Pine Tree Card, which featured scenic photographs of Maine. The new cards will include a disclosure that clearly indicates misuse is a crime.

The addition of a photograph has proven to be useful to the benefit recipient in other states, as it creates a more formal proof of identification for those who do not have a state-issued ID or have not been issued a driver’s license, according to DHHS officials.

But the plan to issue photo EBT cards has drawn concern from the federal government, which has warned that implementation of photo benefit cards in other states have come with a variety of problems.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture wrote to Maine DHHS requesting a detailed plan on how the state would implement its photo program.

The cards, which are largely used to dispense federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly food Stamps, should not be configured to interfere with the distribution of those benefits, said Jessica Shahin, associate administrator for SNAP at the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service’s Boston offices.

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.

DHHS has complied with that request and has provided that plan to the public and the media.

“Certain groups, including the disabled or blind and those 60 and over will not be required to have a photo on the card, according to DHHS. Those cards will read “Valid without Photo.”

Current Pine Tree cards will remain active until the new photo cards are delivered.

Under federal SNAP rules, cardholders can give a family member permission to purchase food on their behalf, but the card user must still enter the personal identification number at the point of sale.  

“Putting photos on EBT cards helps to ensure that benefits are being used by those for whom they were intended,’’ Mayhew said. “It is the right thing to do. Maine is one of the first states to do this, but it won’t be the last.”

Advocates for the poor in Maine said the photos are a bad idea and have the potential to undermine important protections in the federal law that created SNAP.

“When you put a picture on a card, we fear that will create confusion and humiliation at the checkout line,” said Christine Hastedt, a policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners. Hastedt said she worried that retailers and grocers have not been adequately prepared to treat those with photo EBT cards without bias as required under federal law. 

“When you use your card at the point of sale, (grocers) can’t treat you any differently from anybody else using a credit or debit card,” Hastedt said. “It exposes grocers and retailers to violating the law.” If retailers check EBT identification, they also would have to check identification of anyone using plastic to purchase goods or services.

She said in a recent letter to the state that the USDA also warns that photo EBT cards have not proven an effective tool in combating fraud.

Hastedt said her organization was frustrated that many of the LePage proposals around combating fraud were misguided and didn’t get at the heart of the problem.

“I want to know when we are going to see a proposal that’s aimed at helping to reduce the biggest problem that this group of families face, and that is poverty,” Hastedt said. “We’ve seen and heard a lot about issues related to fraud and not much that would help families move out of poverty. That’s the moment I’m looking forward to.”

Maine will be only the third state to add photos to the cards joining, New York and Massachusetts. 

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