BOSTON — State Republican lawmakers say the Patrick administration’s plan to eliminate high balances in benefit accounts of low-income families on electronic benefit transfer cards is “virtually useless,” and called on the governor to implement new rules under which any money over $1,500 reverts back to the state.
The governor, meanwhile, has instead proposed that several categories of recipients be exempt from a plan to require photo identification for any EBT card use.
“Clearly fraud is happening when someone can accumulate a balance of $12,000 on an EBT card and essentially make it a savings account,” state Rep. Shaunna O’Connell said during a conference last week with other GOP lawmakers outside the House chamber.
One day after the Department of Transitional Assistance unveiled its plan to prevent welfare recipients from stockpiling thousands of dollars in their food stamp or cash assistance accounts, O’Connell said it is not enough and suggested people will be allowed to keep high balances for too long before an investigation is launched.
Gov. Deval Patrick responded by saying not every instance where an electronic benefit transfer card has a large balance indicates fraud, noting a recipient might have experienced an extended hospital stay.
“That’s why we put the reforms in place we did,” Patrick told reporters. “Now not in every case does that mean that there has been fraud, but it certainly raises questions. The people who are eligible for these benefits are in many cases the poorest of the poor, so having an accumulated balance raises issues, but some people have been in a hospital for periods of time and are not using their benefits. There are all kinds of explanations.”
Asked what issues were raised in his mind, Patrick said, “All the ones you’d expect.”
While signing off first on a $125 million supplemental budget for fiscal 2013, and then a fiscal 2014 budget that includes cuts of more than $11 in local aid to cities and towns until, he said, the Legislature adjusts the spending plan to realistically fund state transportation needs,
Patrick also said Friday he generally supports a requirement that photo identification to be added to the welfare EBT cards as one measure against fraud. But he returned the EBT welfare reform provisions to the Legislature with amendments that would require a study of the program’s effectiveness — and exempt seniors, the blind, disabled and victims of domestic violence who receive benefits from having the photo ID.
Patrick’s office highlighted an amendment to the EBT card plan asking the Department of Transitional Assistance, the inspector general’s office and the auditor’s office to review the effectiveness of adding photos to EBT cards and report back in three years.
He also said he would seek $2.5 million in a future budget request for fiscal 2014 to fund the implementation of the photo ID requirement. The Senate estimated it could cost as much as $5 million.
But the amendment filed by Patrick would also require regulations authorizing all members of a household to be authorized to use the photo EBT card, and would exempt anyone over 60, blind disabled or a victim of domestic violence from using their photo. The governor also wants the fraud hotline number and DTA website printed on all cards.
“With the many safeguards it appears you have endeavored to write into this bill, I am prepared to support it. However, I am also aware that other states have considered and rejected this type of measure on the grounds that the cost outweighs the benefit, and that the previous administration here in Massachusetts came to a similar conclusion,” Patrick wrote to legislators.
Proponents of adding photo ID to welfare benefit cards argue that it will help reduce illegal trafficking of the cards, but critics suggest it puts a burden on the elderly and disabled who may rely on others to do their shopping. Opponents also frequently point out that former Gov. Mitt Romney ended the photo ID program during his administration because the benefits did not outweigh the cost of running the program.
Patrick’s amendment appears to try to address some of those concerns.
O’Connell, a Republican from Taunton, and Gloucester state Senator and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr have been among those pushing for reforms in the use of electronic benefit transfer accounts, criticizing the system’s potential for abuse. Both federal Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Assistance benefits – food stamps - and state cash assistance are paid to recipients through electronic benefit transfer accounts.
Last month, Tarr and his GOP Senate colleagues touted their own welfare reform bill and amendments that, beyond the photo ID requirement, also targeted a so-called “cliff effect,” which keeps many recipients on welfare because it’s better for them financially than working at a low-paying job.
O’Connell, meanwhile, emphasized that she wants any balances over $1,500 accumulated for more than two months to be automatically returned to state accounts. She and other Republican lawmakers said the Patrick administration would not have taken any action if they had not pushed the issue.
Patrick has reiterated that, in his view, the balances do not necessarily indicate fraud.
“What those high balances indicate is that there are questions that have to be asked, not necessarily that there is fraud,” Patrick said. “So, asking those questions and the initiatives that we’ve put in place in order to ensure those questions get answered is a really, really, good thing. And it’s good for us all in the long run.”
Patrick said billions of dollars are spent every year on public assistance with a “relatively small amount” of problems that come to light that raise questions.
“And it blows back on the whole program,” and the people who run it, Patrick said.
Of the more than 83,000 households receiving cash assistance in March, 37 had balances over $1,500 and six had balances over $2,500. More than 99 percent of cash assistance households had balances under $1,000.
In order to qualify for DTA assistance, residents are limited to less than $2,500 in countable assets.
O’Connell said she first became aware last year of the ability for welfare recipients to accumulate high balances when a retailer in Pittsfield gave her a client’s store recipient showing a $7,000 balance.