Published Date Written by David Carkhuff
The state of Maine has begun putting photos on Maine’s Electronic Benefits Transaction, or EBT, cards.
“We issued about 40 new cards, but we are staggering notices to invite people to come in,” said Bethany Hamm, director for the Office for Family Independence, Maine Department of Health and Human Services, in a Monday afternoon interview.
Hamm called the changeover a “small-scale pilot program” based out of the DHHS regional office in Bangor before the effort is taken statewide.
“This was a voluntary invite, we didn’t send out too many letters because we didn’t know what the response would be, and we wanted to make the process smooth for our recipients and our staff,” she said.
In a press release earlier this month, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said that beginning in July, all DHHS regional offices will begin taking photos. At that time, cards will be produced in a central location and will be mailed to the recipient.
“Placing photos on the Maine EBT card supports this Administration’s efforts to strengthen the integrity of our public assistance programs,” said Mayhew. “The photo will also help our staff to verify the identity of the benefit recipient and will be helpful in cases where cards have been illegally sold or when multiple cards are in the possession of an individual.”
The new cards, which feature a white background and a blue banner, will replace the former Pine Tree Card, which featured scenic photographs of Maine. The card will also include language that clearly indicates that misuse of the benefit card is considered a crime, Mayhew reported.
Certain groups, including the disabled or blind and those 60 and over will not be required to have a photo on the card, the state reported. Their cards will say “Valid without Photo.”
The former Pine Tree card will remain active for until the time that new cards are delivered to recipients, the state reported.
Hamm said the agency is “moving forward cautiously” to avoid disruptions both to recipients and to DHHS operations.
“We had a fairly good, steady stream of activity today,” Hamm said, adding that people seemed “very positive about the new effort.”
The federal government “did send us a letter last Friday asking us to wait to launch our voluntary program, our pilot program,” Hamm said.
Maine joins New York and Massachusetts as states that have photos on EBT cards.
“Massachusetts had some issues in the rollout of their photo EBT effort, and they wanted to make sure that same kind of thing doesn’t happen here in Maine,” Hamm explained.
According to news reports, a federal official with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, wrote a letter to the Patrick administration in Massachusetts and expressed concern about implementation of photo EBT cards in that state. A major issue, according to reports, was the lapse in food stamps for recipients whose old cards expired but whose new, photo-equipped cards failed to reach them via mail.
Maine officials chose to proceed with the changeover. The conversion came in the wake of a well-publicized debate over EBT cards and their use.
In January, Gov. Paul LePage released information showing thousands of transactions involving the misuse of taxpayer-funded welfare benefits on EBT cards issued by the state to Mainers receiving benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
“Putting photos on EBT cards helps to ensure that benefits are being used by those for whom they were intended,” said Mayhew earlier this month. “It is the right thing to do. Maine is one of the first states to do this, but it won’t be the last.”