Maine lawmakers seek control over welfare cards

Posted July 18, 2010, at 9:25 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In the wake of turmoil in California where lawmakers found welfare recipients were using their state issued debit cards to withdraw cash from ATMs at casinos and massage parlors, two key state lawmakers say Maine faces the same accountability issues.

“People want to help those in need,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “When money is used for these types of things, this is a serious, serious problem, and some restrictions need to be put in place.”

He said he is very concerned that Maine uses a “cash” card that does not restrict in any way how the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits are used.

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“I think you are going to find a lot of people are upset about this,” he said.

In California a series of stories by the Los Angles Times uncovered that some welfare recipients in that state had been using ATMs at casinos, liquor stores and massage parlors to withdraw cash with their state-issued debit card. That led to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordering the state vendor that provides the cards to block their use at casino ATMs.

Barbara Van Burgel, director of the Office of Integrated Access that oversees the TANF program, said Diamond is correct that the debit card has no restrictions because the program is a cash benefit.

She said the same cash benefit existed when the agency issued a check to distribute the funds before switching to a debit card.

“It’s a card that they can use where ever there is an ATM or use it at a store to buy something,” she said. “It is an unrestricted cash grant.”

Van Burgel said the TANF program is a federal block grant to the state to provide assistance to poor families. The grant for this year was about $31 million and is providing assistance to about 14,000 families with an average benefit of $383 a month.

“The ability to use that card for much more than the basic needs is pretty limited,” she said. “That is not a lot of money.”

Sen. Joe Brannigan, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said he is also concerned that recipients may not be using the cash benefit as intended, to provide basic necessities for their families.

“You can bet we will be asking some questions about this,” he said. “There have to be some ways in place to make sure people are using this money as intended.”

Van Burgel said there has always been a fraud unit that checks on both the TANF benefit use and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that for years was called the food stamp program. She said the SNAP benefits do have restrictions so that the recipient can buy only food and not cigarettes or liquor.

“We don’t, on a regular basis, investigate where people use their benefits,” she said. “If someone believes someone is using benefits improperly, they should report it to our fraud unit, and they will investigate it.”

Van Burgel said the unit not only investigates reports of improper use, it also will institute its own probe if a staff member sees a dubious spending pattern in the reports the agency receives.

The unit also investigates eligibility for benefits and errors in determining benefits. She said the documented fraud rate in Maine is two-tenths of 1 percent.

“Most people use this benefit as intended,” she said. “We do not have a big fraud problem.”

She dismissed California’s response that bans use of ATMs at questionable locations as ineffective. She said if someone wants to get the cash for something improper, they will find a way.

“If somebody is going to misuse the benefits, they can get the cash at any bank ATM or at a Hannaford,” Van Burgel said. She said Maine has the capability to track where the card was used to withdraw cash, but it would not indicate misuse.

She said there are a lot of “myths” about Maine’s TANF system. She also said her agency has created a Web page, www.maine.gov/dhhs/realfacts/top_ten_tanf.htm, that lists the “top 10” myths about the program.

Included on that page is information about the fraud rate and the amount of benefits, and who qualifies for benefits.

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