AUGUSTA, Maine – The federal government is asking Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to provide details on its efforts to pilot a new electronic benefits transfer card system that would include a recipient’s photo.
The state uses EBT cards to dispense a variety of public assistance, including the largely federally funded food stamp or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families programs.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the SNAP program through its Food and Nutrition Service, and on Feb. 26, the service wrote Maine’s DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew requesting information.
Among other things, the two-page letter asks DHHS for information in eight specific areas.
"The addition of photos to the EBT card, especially in a state that has never done so before, is a very sensitive issue for clients, advocates and retailers," Jessica Shahin, an associate administer with SNAP wrote. "Because the complex legal, operational and civil rights issues that have arisen around the implementation of photo EBT cards elsewhere, as well as the potential risk for litigation should something go wrong, [the Food and Nutrition Service] must work closely with DHHS to ensure that implementation is seamless and within the bounds of law and regulation."
Shahin then asked Maine’s DHHS to show a written plan of how implementing a photo EBT card process "would not adversely affect day-to-day SNAP operations."
The Food and Nutrition Service asked the state to respond within 45 days.
Mayhew has said the state has started to implement a pilot program but has yet to give any details on where the program is being launched and how.
Other states that have implemented a photo program for EBT cards have seen a variety of problems.
Massachusetts began a $2.5 million photo EBT program in November 2013. But the program got off to a rocky start, including complaints from the Food and Nutrition Service that many of those eligible for SNAP benefits were being disallowed from accessing them.
Of the 220,000 welfare recipients eligible for SNAP benefits, only 170,000 were quickly issued the new photo EBT cards. Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance used Registry of Motor Vehicles photos for those cards, but the other 50,000 recipients had no photo on file.
About 7,500 of the cards mailed out to recipients in the Bay State went undelivered and were returned to the state, while another 700 photo cards were erroneously deactivated by the state’s vendor, according to a December 2013 report by Masslive.com’s State House News Service.
Kevin Concannon, the under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is also the former commissioner for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services under Democratic governors.
He is critical of the photo plan, based on the problems Massachusetts has experienced.
It was a "rocky roll-out," he said last week, partially because a card holder’s family members are also allowed to access the benefits.
"We have written to the state of Maine and advised that they need to review what they propose to do with us," said Concannon. "Stores need to be trained ahead of time on what can be expected. We need to make sure they’re not kicking out groups of people improperly."
It remains unclear how Maine intends to place photos on its EBT cards, or how much it will cost the state. Advocates for the poor have also noted that under federal law, the state may not be able to make the program mandatory, and some SNAP recipients will be able to opt-out of the photo program.
Shahin also noted that there is a question as to whether a person who is a caregiver or guardian for a SNAP recipient but is ineligible for SNAP benefits would be required to have a photo EBT card to access the dependent’s benefits.
Shahin said that under federal law, Maine would also need to ensure that merchants accepting photo EBT cards do not discriminate by requiring them to also check photo identification for customers also using bank debit or credit cards.
There are 223,891 active EBT cards in Maine’s system, according to DHHS spokesman John Martins. Meanwhile, there are 7,633 families in Maine currently receiving TANF benefits, which is down from 14,391 in 2010.
Martins said those with active EBT cards include some no longer receiving benefits but have funds on their cards that have not yet been expended.
In an email message Tuesday, Martins said he believed DHHS had responded to the USDA’s request about the photo program details but was seeking confirmation from other DHHS officials.
BDN State House Bureau Chief Chris Cousins contributed to this story.