AUGUSTA, Maine — After a two-month pilot project in the Bangor region, a new rule requiring photo identification on state-issued welfare benefit cards will be expanded statewide on Tuesday.
The Department of Health and Human Services announced the expansion of the new rule in an email to reporters on Monday.
“Placing photos on the Maine EBT [Electronic Benefit Transfer] card is one additional way to strengthen the integrity of our public assistance programs,’’ wrote DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew. “The photo will also help our staff to verify the identity of the benefit recipient and will be helpful in EBT trafficking cases where cards are sold for cash or drugs, or when multiple cards are in the possession of an individual.”
The new rule applies to nearly all of the roughly 223,000 active EBT cards circulating in Maine. The vast majority of EBT cards are used by recipients of benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
A small percentage of the cards is also used by beneficiaries of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, an anti-poverty program that provides cash assistance to households with eligible children. Even fewer cardholders use EBT to access welfare funds from other state and federal programs.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage has been a staunch proponent of the photo ID requirement for EBT cardholders, despite questions and concerns raised by the federal government, including a warning that the state’s rushed implementation of the rule could result in lawsuits against the state and jeopardize federal funding.
“Adding a photo to the EBT card will help to deter fraud and protect benefits for those who are legally and legitimately receiving them,’’ LePage wrote in a prepared statement. “The card now makes it crystal clear that using EBT inappropriately is a crime, which makes it easier to prosecute those who take advantage of the system.”
While advocates for the photo requirement have said it will help prevent the illegal trafficking of EBT cards and ensure only those authorized to use the funds will be able to access them, the ID rule changes nothing about how the cards can — and cannot — be used.
No business that accepts EBT funds will be allowed to check the photo ID before approving a purchase. Only the PIN, a four-digit security code, is necessary to use an EBT card. And family members and other assigned representatives of EBT users will still be able to use the card — even if it doesn’t have their picture on it — as long as they know the PIN.
DHHS was criticized this spring for not clearly informing recipients that no business will be allowed to use the photo ID to verify a cardholder’s identity, or to determine whether to allow an otherwise legal use of SNAP or TANF funds.
Opponents of the plan have said the photo ID requirement could cause confusion and prevent welfare recipients from being able to legally access their benefits.
DHHS has said the photo ID adds a benefit for cardholders by providing “a more formal proof of identification” for those without state-issued identification cards or driver’s licenses.
Cardholders will be required to get their photos taken at their local DHHS office, and new cards will be sent via mail. The new cards will be activated with the cardholder’s PIN — a four-digit security number — and the old card will remain functional until the new one is activated.
Maine Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, is the Senate chairwoman on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. She said the photo requirement is “not ready for prime time.”
“Based on the pilot program, it’s not clear any fraud will be prevented,” she said. “It’s not approved by the feds. And it places a tremendous burden on businesses by turning them into de facto enforcers. What happens when someone is sick and they send their neighbor or child to the store with their EBT card? What’s the litmus test to prove they’re only being helpful, not fraudulent?”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.