A way to limit food assistance fraud

posted Oct 19, 2011, 6:32 AM by Elysse Magnotto-Cleary
October 19, 2011, As published in the Cape Cod Times

We can all agree that something needs to be done to stop the misuse of state programs such as food assistance. Though the majority of recipients of this program use their benefits for legitimate purposes, it is not uncommon for some recipients to make illegitimate purchases.

The recently passed Massachusetts supplemental budget (yet to be signed by the governor) proposes use of an estimated $480 million in unanticipated revenues. That budget puts $154 million back into programs that were reduced in the annual budget as a result of the economic crisis and wisely returns $350 million to the commonwealth's rainy-day fund.

While most of the 32 amendments filed to the House version of the bill were rejected or withdrawn, one amendment that did pass in both the House and the Senate warrants our approval.

That amendment, filed by Rep. Shaunna O'Connell, R-Taunton, creates a commission to study the use of electronic benefit cards (EBT cards) for welfare recipients in Massachusetts. EBT cards are used the same way one would use a debit or ATM card and were initially created to reduce the amount of fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars seen with paper food stamps.

According to the Office of Heath and Human Services, EBT card users have been purchasing more nutritious food by using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamps program). SNAP benefits are provided by the federal government and administered by the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance. Residents of the commonwealth who participate in SNAP include elders, the disabled and families with children. Participation in the program has increased dramatically over the past five years.

The Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services website provides information about applying for assistance and using an EBT card and suggests the card's primary purpose is to buy food. It is not supposed to be used to buy, among other things, alcoholic beverages, tobacco products and non-food items. Though the site does not specifically say so, the food assistance benefit of the EBT card of course is not intended for purchasing firearms and lottery products. Part of the reason the cards are so easily used for inappropriate purposes is that they look so much like our standard credit and debit cards. One can argue that allowing the use of credit cards for the purchase of lottery tickets has added to the problem.

Rep. O'Connell's proposal requires this new commission to study the use of EBT cards for the purchase of products other than those for which they are intended; the frequency and location of out-of-state card use; identification of in-state and out-of-state stores where cards are used; and the proportion of cash assistance withdrawn from ATMs rather than used in stores to directly purchase nutritional food products. The commission would also study the feasibility of requiring EBT cards to include photo identification.

Clearly, the goal of such a study is to find ways of preventing abuse and to ensure that those who actually need the assistance get it, and that abusers are prevented from continuing to cheat the system.

While it is important to continue to fund our assistance programs appropriately, we must also protect the integrity of the assistance programs offered by our commonwealth. I see this amendment as the necessary first step in determining the extent of abuse of the EBT card system.

Too often we hear stories of people selling or trading their cards for services or using them to buy inappropriate items. It is clearly time to put an end to the systemic abuse of this important program while continuing to recognize the need to help those who really need the assistance this program was intended to provide.

Cleon H. Turner, D-Dennis, is the state representative for the 1st Barnstable District. More information can be found at www.repcleonturner.com.