It appears that the media has great interest in Gov. Paul LePage’s desire to reduce and eliminate fraud, waste and abuse in taxpayer-funded welfare programs. The arguments against putting photos on electronic benefit cards or anti-fraud legislation are, to put it bluntly, weak.
Advocates point to the very low percentage of fraud and abuse, as if to say that a certain amount of fraud is acceptable to Maine’s hard-working people. The Bangor Daily News made this same laughable argument in its editorial on May 3, pointing to $1.42 million in food stamp fraud in 2012.
But the only acceptable amount of welfare fraud is zero and to suggest anything else is an insult to the hardworking taxpayers of Maine.
Investigators in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services Fraud, Investigation and Recovery Unit constantly receive tips and complaints from community members across the state about EBT benefits being sold or traded for illegal drugs. Law enforcement officials often come in contact with a person during an arrest related to drugs who has several EBT cards in his or her possession. I think most people, even advocates who seem accepting of a “small percentage of fraud,” would agree that we must do all that we can to stop these transactions and prosecute them to the fullest.
Photographs on EBT cards will help deter the trafficking of EBT cards. A few weeks ago, a man stood in front of a Hannaford in southern Maine and attempted to sell his EBT card for 50 cents on the dollar. Would having his own photo on the card make him think twice? We think it will.
Of the benefit recipients who have gone to the Bangor office to voluntarily receive their new EBT photo identification card, several have indicated their desire to protect their own interests. They feel that the photograph offers an additional layer of protection when it comes to the use of their benefits if their card is lost or stolen. Just like a security light on your car or a security camera in a store helps deter a potential thief, a picture ID on the EBT card says “move on” to someone who intends to steal a card. And to clarify, an elderly or disabled individual, or a person who cannot shop for himself or herself would still be allowed to have an authorized individual help them shop for things like groceries even if there were a photo on the EBT card.
Adding photographs to EBT cards will not solve every problem related to welfare fraud, but it is another important tool in the toolkit. The LePage administration has put a strong focus on eliminating welfare fraud through a number of initiatives in the past three years, and this initiative is the latest step to secure taxpayers’ peace of mind that tax dollars are being used for daily necessities as intended.
We added eight new fraud investigators to the Fraud Unit, established a fraud hot line for the public and saw referrals jump 200 percent; we established the fraud and abuse task force in partnership with the attorney general’s office; the governor signed the law making transactions at liquor stores, strip clubs and casinos illegal; and we have partnered with law enforcement to crack down on trafficking and misuse of EBT cards.
Despite Democrats in the Legislature rejecting additional proposals to fight welfare fraud, like banning the use of EBT for bail and lottery tickets, the administration continues to find ways to address this very real problem. The department is utilizing state-of-the art business intelligence tools to analyze welfare transactional data, both historical and real-time data, to track trends and spot fraudulent use of EBT cards. This data was available to past administrations but unfortunately was not used to fight fraud, waste and abuse.
To say that placing photographs on EBT cards is an election-year strategy fails to recognize that the administration has worked diligently and is succeeding in tackling welfare fraud. For example, the number of civil actions that have led to benefit suspension are up by 60 percent in one year, and the number of pleas and convictions for abuse of welfare benefits has doubled since 2009.
Photo IDs on EBT cards will deter criminals from fraud, protect the cardholder and secure the taxpayers’ confidence and trust that their public tax dollars are being used for intended and appropriate purposes. This common sense tool is just one more way the LePage administration is fighting welfare fraud, waste and abuse.
Sam Adolphsen is the chief operating officer of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.