By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, DEC. 3, 2014….U.S. Department of Agriculture officials have “significant concerns” about Massachusetts welfare recipients’ ability to access benefits because of the way the state implemented its photo ID requirement for electronic benefit cards, and are warning state officials that some practices around the photos violate federal laws.
Federal officials want the state to take action to correct problems, according to a letter obtained by the News Service. The letter, sent Tuesday from USDA Acting Regional Administrator Kurt Messner to Department of Transitional Assistance Commissioner Stacey Monahan, lays out guidelines on changes the state should make.
The state violates federal law when families are denied welfare benefits because one person in the household is not complying with the photo requirement, according to Messner.
“Failure to comply with the photo EBT card requirement does not make the household ineligible for program benefits,” Messner said in his letter.
DTA Commissioner Monahan told the News Service she plans to have a conversation with USDA officials, and her office is working to correct the issues pointed out by the federal agency.
Monahan said DTA worked very closely with the USDA to launch the photo ID program, and said she finds it surprising they now have problems with the implementation.
She said, “We have no evidence of anyone being denied benefits or their cases being adversely impacted because of the photo ID implementation.”
The Department of Transitional Assistance began rolling out photos on EBT cards in November 2013, 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.
Certain people are exempt from the photo requirement, including anyone under 18, the elderly, disabled or domestic violence victims.
Messner said that some people who are exempt from the photo requirement may face denial of benefits.
“The State continues to take and store photos of some applicants who are exempt from the photo EBT program, such as the elderly or disabled and domestic violence victims. As a result, those who meet exemption criteria who fail to comply with the State’s photo EBT program may be subject to their application being denied or case closed,” which violates federal law, Messner wrote in the letter.
The USDA was alerted to problems with the photo IDs after numerous welfare recipients were turned away by store clerks because someone else in their family was pictured on the card they were using, according to officials at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, which filed a complaint with the USDA.
Under the federal Food and Nutrition Act, states that opt to place photos on EBT cards must establish procedures to ensure other household members or authorized representatives may use the card, according to Messner’s letter.
This is not the first time federal officials have flagged concerns about Massachusetts’ implementation of photos on welfare benefit cards. Last December, a top federal government official said she was troubled by the way the Patrick administration was rolling out the new requirement, saying some cards were erroneously deactivated.
On Tuesday, Patricia Baker, a senior policy analyst at Mass Law Reform, said the state rushed to implement the photo law, and failed to ensure recipients knew their rights or that retailers were well-informed about who could use the benefit cards.
It has created “humiliating” experiences at check-out lines for many people who find themselves “hassled” by clerks, Baker said.
“I think the bigger problem here is that you put a photo on a card, and retailers assume that only they (person pictured) can use it,” she said.
The USDA also found there was insufficient communication between DTA and retailers, which created a “general confusion,” among retailers about who could use the photo EBT card.
When the photo IDs went into effect, groups like Massachusetts Law Reform, Neighbor to Neighbor, and Homes for Families criticized the change, and predicted in a statement it “will do nothing meaningful to combat fraud, and will make it harder for vulnerable families to access these critical benefits.”
Monahan said she is “unclear” why USDA officials say there was not enough communication with retailers. DTA, along with USDA officials, met together with retailers to get the message across that nothing had really changed about who could access benefits within a family, Monahan said.
“That has never changed. When we mailed out the cards, it says that everyone in your household is still authorized to use this card,” she said.
DTA has a retail education point-person assigned to inform retailers about the photo rollout. Monahan said when DTA was made aware of problems at a particular store the retail point-person immediately went to the retailer to address any issues.
The USDA is asking the state to correct the problems, including improved communications with welfare recipients about EBT photo criteria and their right to claim an exemption.
The state must also ensure that benefit eligibility is determined for all household members even if a non-exempt person in the family does not comply with the EBT photo policy, Messner stated.
DTA staffers were not sufficiently trained on the photo implementation, according to Messner. Most communication about the change was received through memos issued by DTA’s central office.
“The lack of training may have resulted in misunderstanding or misapplication of policy among program staff,” Messner wrote.