By COLLEEN QUINN
State House News Service
---- — BOSTON — A top federal government official is troubled by the way the Patrick administration is rolling out a new photo identification requirement on welfare benefit cards, saying that some cards had been erroneously deactivated and prevented recipients from accessing food assistance.
Jessica Shahin, associate administrator of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), wrote a letter to Health and Human Service Secretary John Polanowicz last week, detailing the federal government’s concerns over the way the photo program is being implemented on electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards.
“The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is deeply concerned about issues related to implementation that are adversely affecting client access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits,” Shahin wrote, according to a letter obtained by the News Service.
The Department of Transitional Assistance began rolling out photos on EBT cards in mid-November, four months after lawmakers passed the new requirement aimed at cutting down on fraud and abuse. Under the law, DTA had up to 12 months to replace all EBT cards that require a photo ID.
“FNS understands that the photo EBT requirement is a state law; however, the sheer volume of households potentially without access to their benefits suggests that DTA has pursued a rushed implementation of the requirement without taking care to put adequate safeguards in place for eligible, participating households,” she wrote.
DTA Commissioner Stacey Monahan told the News Service that the department did have procedures in place to remedy any problems for those receiving new cards. She described the implementation overall as “really successful.”
“We put a lot of safeguards in place prior to mailing cards,” she said.
Gov. Deval Patrick agreed to the photo ID requirement as part of a budget bill he signed in July, with supporters of the measure saying it would help prevent benefit fraud and ensure that public assistance benefits flow only to the proper recipients. Patrick in July sought $2.5 million to implement the photo ID requirement.
The Department of Transitional Assistance recently mailed 170,000 new photo EBT cards to welfare recipients, using photos that already existed with the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Approximately 220,000 welfare recipients will be required to have photos on their EBT cards.
In early December, thousands of people were without benefits when approximately 7,500 cards were returned to DTA by the U.S. Postal Service. Welfare recipients whose new cards were returned had their existing cards shut off, leaving them without access to their food stamp benefits, Shahin said.
An additional 700 new photo EBT cards were erroneously deactivated by the EBT vendor, according to Shahin.
“These issues prevent eligible individuals from accessing critically needed food assistance benefits and create additional hardships for clients, particularly during the holiday season,” Shahin wrote. “Families depend upon SNAP benefits to meet their monthly household nutritional needs.”
The fact that thousands of eligible, already enrolled Massachusetts households could be without access to their benefits is extremely troubling.”
Monahan said the department expected some cards to be returned, largely because of the transient nature of its clients, and in anticipation of that problem used a national database to cross-reference addresses to make sure clients who moved without telling DTA still received their benefits.
Out of the 170,000 mailed, 7,500 were returned, she said. The department sorted through the returned mail daily, and caseworkers called clients to notify them their cards were returned so as to rectify the situation. Some clients were mailed cards overnight using express mail.
“So, we made a lot of attempts to reach people to let them know there was an issue,” she said.
Monahan pointed out that welfare recipients are required to notify the department of any changes, including addresses.
“We are continuing to get, on a daily basis, drips and drabs of returned mail. We will make sure we will reach clients as quickly as possible,” she said.
Approximately 55,000 clients did not have a photo on file. They have been scheduling appointments to have pictures taken at DTA field offices or turning up without appointments, Monahan said. As of last Wednesday night, 15,000 people had their photos taken for new cards within the last two weeks, according to Monahan.