BANGOR, Maine — A pilot program intended to strengthen the integrity of Maine’s welfare programs kicked off Monday in Bangor, where some recipients of public assistance funds traded in benefit cards for new ones featuring photo identification.

The new project adds a photo ID to electronic benefits transfer cards, which are used like debit cards by welfare recipients. The cards carry funds that can be used to buy food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, and cash benefits through a program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Gov. Paul LePage and Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, have said a photo ID on EBT cards will help fight abuse in the system and prevent the cards from being traded or sold illegally, particularly in exchange for drugs. State law enforcement officials have said the number of illegally held EBT cards turning up in drug busts has increased in recent years.

In moving ahead with the pilot project, the state is bucking the advice of the federal government, which has expressed concerns that the state is rushing implementation of the photo ID plan. LePage and Mayhew have been urged to pump the brakes while the feds review the plan in finer detail.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture sent a letter to Mayhew last week and said moving too fast could put Maine at risk of litigation against the state and of losing federal funding for the programs.

“Maine should delay any implementation until [Food and Nutrition Services] can fully review and approve the state’s plan,” said an agency official in the letter. “Given the risk of losing federal financial participation, as well as the risk for litigation against the state should the state’s implementation of the photo EBT card violate provisions of the Food and Nutrition Act or SNAP regulations, Maine should not rush into implementation.”

The USDA’s concerns stem, in part, from the botched execution of a similar plan in Massachusetts, which implemented photo EBT cards in November. Problems with the rollout there left about 7,500 cardholders without access to benefits, according to local news reports. About another 700 cards were erroneously deactivated.

But a top DHHS official said the state’s pilot project in Bangor was meant to identify any potential kinks before the statewide mandate kicks in this summer, said Bethany Hamm, director of Office of Family Independence at DHHS.

“We certainly share [the USDA’s] concerns, which is why we’re rolling out the pilot the way we’re doing it,” she said. “We’re taking the lessons learned in Massachusetts and hope to make this transition as easy and efficient as possible.”

DHHS plans to mandate a photo ID on nearly all EBT cards in July, while disabled and elderly recipients will be exempt from the requirement. The Bangor DHHS office, which services Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, began giving out the new cards on a voluntary basis.

About 17,000 active EBT cards are in circulation in the two counties. Last week, the state sent letters to about 1,200 of those cardholders, alerting them of the voluntary pilot program and inviting them to come to the office to trade in their cards. By noon Monday, about 25 people had come in to get photos taken and receive new cards.

Ella Hunter, 48, of Dover-Foxcroft was one of the volunteers to get a new card on Monday. She said she hoped the photo ID requirement would make it harder for people to game the system.

“A lot of people abuse the system out there,” she said.

The process for Hunter and the other volunteers was quick, easy and took about five minutes. Each had to show valid identification and trade in their EBT card, which was shredded. After getting a photo taken, the person’s new card was printed and activated.

Hamm said that while the plan is intended to cut down on abuse, the initiative also is a benefit for some cardholders. It gives them another form of photo identification, which is often required to obtain a job or other services.

Under federal law, an EBT cardholder can give the card to family members or other approved people — such as home health care workers — to make purchases on his or her behalf.

The USDA and other advocates fear that retailers, when confronted by a cardholder whose face doesn’t match the one in the photograph, won’t allow the card to be used.

Hamm said retailers have been notified of the new pilot project and told to refer to the agreement signed with the USDA in order to accept EBT payment. Essentially, that means that if the cardholder knows the correct PIN, the person should be able to use the card.

Next week, DHHS will send more notifications to cardholders in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, inviting them to participate in the pilot program. The number of notices will depend on the program’s success this week, Hamm said.

Once the Bangor experiment is over and the photo ID mandate goes statewide, cardholders will be required to go to their regional DHHS office to get photos taken. The photos will be forwarded to the state, which will print out new cards and mail them to recipients.

BDN staff writer Nick McCrea contributed to this report. Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...