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Former Maine DHHS Chief: Photos on EBT Cards Won't Deter Fraud

Jay Field

WASHINGTON - U.S. Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon wants to reassure low-income Mainers that their food stamp benefits will continue, despite an ongoing stalemate between the state and the federal government over administration of the federally-funded program. 

A former Maine Department of Health and Human Services comissioner, Concannon says he's confident the state will follow federal rules governing the use of photos on EBT cards.   

The stalemate has dragged on for months.  The LePage administration, anxious to cut down on fraud and abuse, last year began encouraging food stamp recipients to get photos included on their EBT cards and requiring in-person interviews for those who choose not to have their photos taken.

Kevin Concannon says, under the rules, the state is allowed to encourage recipients to get photo IDs but it has to be made clear that the photos are optional.  And he says the state should understand that its new photo-ID initiative won't achieve its stated goal.

"Don't kid yourself that it has any real effect on reducing fraud," he says. "It's more of a political statement than an effective statement."

Over the summer the state was warned that failure to comply with the federal rules could result in administrative funding cuts.  Last month DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew wrote a letter to the agency, criticizing it for consistently putting up "roadblocks and barriers" in the state's effort.  

"If the federal agency stands by its threat to reduce funding," Mayhew wrote, than Maine would "have to re-evaluate our partnership with the federal government."   

Concannon says that's the wrong message to send.

"We don't want people worried from one end of the state to the other - poor people, elderly people: Will I have help to get food next month?  That's wrong," he says. "So, we want to be very measured in that regard.  We don't want to swing things, you know, hold news conferences and make idle threats to anybody."

Reached late this afternoon, Commissioner Mayhew had this to say:

"We plan to put photos on EBT cards consistent with what is permissable under federal law. I've never spoken about the program not continuing."

Concannon  points out that it's in the state's best interest to comply with the federal rules.  In October of last year, there were more than 100,000 Maine households participating in the food stamp program. About a third of the heads of those households are adults who are working.  

But they aren't the only ones who depend on the program.

"Supermarket chains in Maine and corner stores from one end of the state to the other really depend upon the ability of people to buy food with these benefits," Concannon says.

In the end, Concannon says the federal program winds up pumping $600 million into Maine's economy, something the LePage administration has also pledged to improve.