AUGUSTA, Maine — Mainers on food assistance will get fewer benefits in coming months to make up for overpayments by the Department of Health and Human Services over several months last year.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees and pays for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has told DHHS it can make exceptions for recipients who would suffer from a benefit cut, according to a March 30 letter to DHHS from the U.S. Department of Agriculture obtained by the Bangor Daily News.
Between April and August 2011, the program paid about a third of the program’s beneficiaries, or 53,000 households, roughly $4 million more than federal regulations allowed, according to DHHS officials.
The letter to DHHS from Bonnie Brathwaite, SNAP program director in the Northeast, put the amount at $4,861,920.
Recipients will have to pay back from $20 to $80 per household in benefits, according to DHHS. That repayment will be made through smaller benefit distributions in coming months.
The overpayments went out after the federal government decided to cut back the portion of benefits that helps recipients pay their utility bills. The USDA had temporarily boosted those benefits as oil prices rose to record levels last year.
Maine law prevented DHHS, which administers the program, from reducing benefits until a formal rule change in the program was made, said John Martins, a spokesman for DHHS. That took place in August, four months after the cut should have kicked in.
The department also was waiting for the feds to say whether Maine would have to recoup the money, he said.
“We could have been more proficient and efficient in getting the rules passed,” Martins said.
Now the USDA wants the funds back. The agency learned of the overpayments in November 2011 and notified DHHS in the March 30 letter that it would have to recollect benefits.
Brathwaite encouraged the state to consider repayments case by case and gave DHHS the green light to waive or lower repayments for recipients who would suffer hardship or were unlikely to return benefits within three years based on their economic circumstances.
DHHS is looking into further adjusting the program’s rules to avoid winding up in a similar situation in the future, Martins said.
“For most people, anything that’s considered to be a reduction in benefits is alarming,” he said. At the same time, recipients weren’t entitled to the benefits, Martins said.
DHHS sent letters to the affected recipients this month. The money will be deducted from their benefits in small amounts each month until the full amount is paid back, he said.
Benefits then will return to their regular levels, Martins said.
Ethelyn Ellis, 85, of Glenburn said she received a letter on Wednesday informing her that the state would recollect $80 of her benefits. Her budget can withstand the hit, but the state should bear the brunt of its own mistake, she said.
“I’m not going to starve to death, but they made the error. Why should I have to pay the money back?” Ellis said.
Overpayments made to former recipients who no longer receive food assistance will not be recovered, except in cases that closed after March 31, 2011, Martins said. “Individual arrangements” would be made in those cases, he said.
Officials can recollect the benefits in a number of ways under the food assistance program’s rules, including recouping the money from any other federal benefits an individual receives, such as Supplemental Security Income, said Christine Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, which advocates for the poor.
DHHS was put between a rock and a hard place trying to play by federal rules in the face of conflicting state law, Hastedt said.
“We don’t want our clients to have to bear the result of that disagreement,” she said.
DHHS officials were scheduled to speak Thursday with officials from the USDA in hopes of lessening the impact on recipients, Martins said.