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Massachusetts eliminates use of EBT cards with high accumulated balances

Howard Manly

As part of ongoing efforts to reform the state’s welfare system, Department of Transitional Assistance Commissioner Stacey Monahan enacted last week a new rule that eliminates use of electronic benefit (EBT) cards with high accumulated balances.

In addition, Monahan said, households receiving credit to purchase food under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program (SNAP) will no longer have access if they haven’t used the benefits in six months. Under the new rules, those clients will be asked to request reinstatement and will face increased case management.

Monahan said the moves build on her department’s 100-day action plan, which is aimed at saving money for taxpayers and protecting benefits for those who truly need them.

“I was given a mandate from the governor to do a top to bottom review of the agency and make changes to improve the way we do business,” Monahan said in a prepared statement. “The fact that some clients are accumulating high SNAP or cash balances is inconsistent with the department’s goal of helping vulnerable individuals meet their most basic and immediate needs and that’s why we are taking this action.”

Cash assistance recipients with balances above $1,500 will be notified to see if they still need assistance, and EBT cards with balances exceeding $2,500 will be closed, Monahan said.

Monahan’s announcement last week comes on the heels of several reports critical of the state’s welfare system, including an audit by state Auditor Suzanne Bump in May that found millions of dollars in questionable payments to people who were dead or ineligible for benefits or illegally sold food benefits for cash. SNAP benefits are limited to food purchases only.

In March 2013, the state spent $32.5 million by providing 83,009 households with cash assistance. The average monthly benefit was $450, according to state figures.

The average cash balance was $25.21. Nearly 100 percent — 99.8 percent — of the households had a balance of under $1,000. Nearly 80 percent — 76.5 percent — had a balance of under $10. There were 37 households with a balance of over $1,500 and there were six households with a balance of more than $2,500.

The actual numbers suggest that the overwhelming majority of households receiving cash benefits are actually using them.

But several state lawmakers have been pushing for reforms, including State Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, R-Taunton. “Clearly, to me,” O’Connell told the Taunton Gazette, “people are fraudulently getting into the system and this is part of the system and they are accumulating these balances. … They should be criminally charged for defrauding the system and stealing taxpayer dollars. … It makes you wonder what other fraud or abuse could accumulate. People out there that are working to support their families can’t even comprehend how something like this could happen.”

Though Gov. Deval Patrick has ordered his administration to take steps to end fraud and abuse, he has consistently refused to demonize welfare recipients. He also has been reluctant to support such costly measures as requiring welfare recipients to have photo identification on their EBT cards.

Patrick recently vetoed the state legislature’s attempt to ban the use of EBT cards to purchase items such as tattoos, porn, jewelry, manicures, tattoos, guns, body piercings and bail by saying the move was “political grandstanding” at a time when such reforms are already on track elsewhere.

“I’m not going to do anything that makes vulnerable people beg for their benefits,” Patrick said at the time. “This notion of humiliating poor people has got to be separated from how we make a program and, frankly separated and disposed of, from how we make a program work and work well.”

But the high balances did raise an eyebrow.

‘‘People who are eligible for these benefits are in many cases the poorest of the poor, so having an accumulated balance certainly raises issues,’’ Patrick told reporters last week. But Patrick also added that there could be explanations for a higher than normal balance, such as a lengthy hospital stay for a recipient.