AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services is facing federal penalties, including the withholding of precious program funding, if it does not make changes to its controversial new photo ID requirement for food assistance recipients.
In June, the state began implementing a new requirement that most of the roughly 249,000 beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, have their photos taken. Those who do receive new electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, cards featuring the photo identification.
DHHS spokesman David Sorensen said Friday that 21,000 EBT cardholders have had their photos taken, while only about 100 have declined.
Federal officials visited the state in August and conducted a series of interviews with state officials, SNAP recipients, retailers and advocacy groups in Portland, Ellsworth and Bangor. That investigation revealed several problems with the photo ID program, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services division, which oversees the food stamps program.
In a letter dated Nov. 20, FNS required a number of “corrective actions.” If the corrections are not made, the state faces a loss of federal funding and possible legal action. It was the latest in a series of letters exchanged between the federal government and DHHS since April.
The letter does not state exactly how much funding is at risk, but a USDA spokesman said the funding cuts would be made to the federal government’s share of administrative costs.
The feds pay for the entirety of SNAP benefits and roughly half of the program’s administrative costs. In fiscal year 2013, FNS paid the state about $8.9 million, according to an annual report. Last year, more than 130,000 Maine households received an average monthly benefit of about $235.
“USDA is committed to working with the state to ensure that the photo EBT card does not inhibit access to this critical nutrition assistance program,” the spokesman said. “Benefit dollars for clients will not be affected should USDA suspend Maine’s funding.
FNS has raised numerous concerns about the photo ID project, all of which have been brushed aside by DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, and she was equally dismissive of the FNS findings this time around.
“The feds’ objective in coming to Maine was nothing more than an attempt to undermine our ongoing efforts to reduce fraud, waste, and abuse in welfare programs,” said Mayhew in a news release Friday morning. “Federal bureaucrats are out of touch with the wishes of Mainers who are crying out for integrity in our welfare system. FNS has repeatedly put up roadblocks to reform and seems intent on preserving the status quo in state and federal welfare programs.”
Mayhew and Gov. Paul LePage have pitched the program as a way to protect the integrity of the state’s welfare system, but advocates for low-income Mainers have questioned the policy’s efficacy and raised red flags about its cost and its effect on the ability of cardholders to access their benefits.
In its letter, FNS said the state must do more to inform cardholders that the photo ID is optional. Kurt Messner, the regional FNS administrator, said the state was misleading cardholders and others by stating the program was required — despite assurances from state officials that it was not.
“The fact the program is optional is not communicated at critical points in the application and recertification process,” Messner wrote.
Messner cited signage at DHHS offices made references to a “state law,” despite the photo ID program being a matter of policy, not law. A mass mailing to all clients in the Bangor area states that “most cardholders will be required to have their photo placed on their EBT card.” Other materials also referred to the “requirement,” and when SNAP recipients refused to have their photos taken, the state documented the refusal and notified local administrators.
“If the program is optional, there should be no reason to gather case sensitive, client-specific date,” Messner said. He added that if the photo ID program were to be made mandatory, FNS would still issue the state a list of needed corrective actions.
The feds also called for DHHS to do more to educate retailers that accept SNAP benefits. Household members and other authorized representatives are allowed to access a cardholder’s SNAP benefits as long as they know the PIN associated with the card. However, the investigation revealed some retailers believed they should only let a customer access SNAP benefits if they are pictured on the card. DHHS’ instructions to retailers have been vague.
DHHS also must cease requiring face-to-face interviews with food stamp recipients who have not affirmatively opted into the photo ID program, and grant hardship exemptions to those who cannot make it to such meetings, Messner wrote.
Non-applicant heads of household — people ineligible for benefits themselves who submit applications for eligible household members, normally parents applying for SNAP benefits for their children — must also be advised that they are not required to have their photos taken, Messner wrote. The states’ current practice of requiring non-applicants to have their photos taken is an apparent violation of the Civil Rights Act, Messner wrote.
“Any individual who applies for SNAP on behalf of eligible household members must be able to access the program without fear,” he said. “… The violation of an individual’s civil rights in order to protect program integrity would be insufficient justification unless the state can show legitimate cause or provide documentation of the purported benefit. To date, no such justification has been provided by the state.”
Mayhew has until Jan. 4 to respond to FNS’ letter. Sorensen said the department will submit a “point-by-point” response to the concerns raised by the federal government.
Maine, Georgia, Massachusetts and New York have all instituted some form of photo ID for EBT cards. Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Missouri have either opted against the photo ID policy after exhaustive study, or ended the requirement after not realizing expected savings.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.