AUGUSTA, Maine — Despite federal administrators’ reservations, Maine will begin adding recipients’ photographs to Electronic Benefits Transaction cards later this month, the state Department of Health and Human Services announced Friday.
EBT cards dispense several forms of public assistance, including food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
The process of adding photographs to EBT cards will start with a pilot rollout in Bangor beginning April 28. In July, all DHHS regional offices will begin taking photos and cards will be produced in a central location and mailed to recipients.
Putting photos on EBT cards helps to ensure benefits are used by the intended recipient, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a news release. Including photographs also creates a more formal proof of identification for benefit recipients who lack a state ID or driver’s license, the release states.
“Placing photos on the Maine EBT card supports this administration’s efforts to strengthen the integrity of our public assistance programs,’’ Mayhew said. “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.”
New York and Massachusetts also include photos on EBT cards.
Kevin Concannon, the under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a former Maine DHHS commissioner, has been critical of the photo plan. He told the Sun Journal his concerns were based on the rocky rollout of a similar effort in Massachusetts, due in part to the fact that cardholders’ family members also are allowed to access benefits.
Abuse of EBT cards has been a key part of Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s welfare reform agenda — both as governor and as a candidate — and his proposal to require recipients’ photos on EBT cards spurred criticism from Democrats and advocates for public assistance recipients.
“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 also 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. Retailers who check EBT identification would also have to check identification of anyone using plastic to purchase goods or services, according to her interpretation of the law.
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.”
Earlier this month, the federal government, which largely funds the food stamp and TANF programs, asked LePage’s administration to provide details on the plan to add recipients’ photos.
Maine DHHS responded to the USDA in an April 17 letter, saying it will inform clients that the photo ID is not an attempt to prevent access to benefits, particularly in households where children are eligible for benefits but not their parents.
The food stamp program allows cardholders to grant a family member permission to purchase food on his or her behalf. As with the existing card, a personal identification number will be required for the purchase to be approved, the release states.
The new card, featuring a white background and a blue banner, will replace the former Pine Tree Card and include language that clearly indicates misuse of the benefit card is considered a crime.
DHHS’ Office for Family Independence will contact those who now receive benefits in the Bangor area in about a week to inform them how to get a new photo ID card, and benefits recipients can visit the Bangor DHHS office beginning April 28 to have their photos taken.
New cardholders in Bangor will have their photo taken when their benefits are approved and will be issued a photo ID card immediately.
Certain groups, including the disabled or blind, those younger than 19 or older than 60, and victims of domestic violence will not be required to include a photo.
Pine Tree Cards will remain active until new cards are delivered.
LePage on Friday also vetoed LD 1820, a Democrat-sponsored bill that would have studied out-of-state use of EBT cards. LePage has cited such use as another reason for adding photographs. In his veto letter, the governor chided Democrats for not paying attention to information that his administration released about EBT card use from 2011 to 2013.
In his veto letter, LePage said the measure failed to address the problem of EBT abuse and “kicked the can down the road until after the next election.”
Scott Thistle, state politics editor for the Sun Journal, contributed to this report.