Commentary: Moving forward with EBT reform

While there is still work to be done, we are pleased to report numerous changes have been made to ensure that only those who truly need state assistance – including eligible senior citizens, folks with disabilities, single moms with children, and the poor – receive benefits.

The House budget that was passed last week incorporated a requirement we have long advocated that will reinstitute the use of photographs on Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards. This is a simple, cost-effective mechanism to reduce fraud and stymie those who would attempt to traffic in stolen EBT cards.

Another significant change in the House budget is the creation of a new Bureau of Public Integrity within the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA). This bureau would be an independent body that would develop and oversee regulations to improve eligibility determination and to identify and correct fraud. Finally, the budget also creates a task force to develop a “common eligibility standard” for all state agencies that administer public benefits.

With input from the public and from legislators, DTA Commissioner Stacey Monahan has also taken some significant steps to enhance integrity to our public assistance programs. A recently launched 100-day action plan includes a number of important new initiatives, including:

· Department of Revenue data matching: The department is working with DOR to verify whether a person financially qualifies for benefits. In addition, a pilot program is in process to make employment information available at the time of application and expands the data currently received to include self-employment income, rental income and alimony.

· RMV data matching: The department is entering into a data sharing agreement with the RMV as part of asset verification. The RMV record review will allow DTA to verify all vehicles owned by the applicant to verify whether a person qualified for benefits.

· ATM and Point of Sale (POS) withdrawal monitoring: The department has begun a bi-weekly monitoring of ATM and POS withdrawals to identify any purchases made at prohibited establishments. DTA staff members are monitoring where transactions are located and visiting potentially prohibited establishments, such as stores that sell liquor and not groceries.

· Block prohibited items and establishments: The department is working with its EBT vendor, Xerox, to modify its EBT system to block cash withdrawals from ATMs in prohibited establishments.

· Implement $5 fee for replacement EBT cards: EBT card replacement fees of $5 for cash assistance clients began in December to create a financial disincentive for losing cards. Early indicators suggest a 28 percent decrease in losses just since December.

· Partnership with Mass. Police: The department will share data with state and local police in an effort to close an enforcement gap and identify and take action against retailers who sell liquor or other items prohibited for purchase with the EBT cards, or recipients who use the cards fraudulently.

· School attendance verification: The department is working with state education officials to access statewide school attendance via an electronic data exchange to better assess compliance with this requirement.

The DTA is also conducting a series of “Listening Tours” to solicit feedback and concerns from residents. We are pleased to report that the commissioner of the DTA has accepted our invitation to come to the South Shore and hold such a hearing. The event is Thursday, May 30 at 7 p.m. at Pembroke Town Hall. The feedback received at this hearing will be incorporated into a final report submitted to the governor and Legislature for future action.

Welfare and EBT reform is a serious issue that draws heated debate. Unfortunately, individuals will sometimes use the issue to try and score political points at the expense of substantive policy debate. Some ideas may sound sensible at first glance but do not hold up under scrutiny.

For instance, last week during the House budget debate an amendment claiming to crack down on EBT misuse would simply have simply shifted enforcement of EBT violations onto the backs of our retailers and mom and pop store clerks and removed any discretion for innocent mistakes.

Another amendment was offered to mandate Social Security numbers in public housing, both long-term and emergency based. In fact, for the vast majority of cases Social Security numbers are already part of the application and verification process. What was left out of the discussion is that this amendment would have eliminated all discretion for local housing authorities to provide emergency housing for individuals, potentially including women who are victims of domestic violence, or legal immigrants under temporary visas.

While we are committed to work to ensure that our limited tax dollars in the area of housing assistance go to eligible citizens who are themselves taxpayers, we should not take away discretion from our locally elected housing authorities, with whom we have discussed this issue.

EBT abuse has become a hot button issue and it’s easy to dispense blame, but we need to put the focus back on solving the underlying problem. The good news is that there is a growing, bi-partisan consensus of lawmakers working together to do just that. The recent steps outlined above are good evidence of that progress.

Finally, we should keep in mind that while the attention and headlines often focus on the misdeeds of a few, they do not paint a complete picture. Our legitimate need to eliminate fraud and abuse should not replace the compassion we show to those struggling families and individuals who do play by the rules and still need a helping hand from time to time.

State Rep. Jim Cantwell, D-Marshfield, represents the Fourth Plymouth District – Marshfield and Scituate; and State Rep. Josh Cutler, D-Duxbury, represents the Sixth Plymouth District – Pembroke, Duxbury and Hanson.


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Rep. Josh S. Cutler
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Phone: 617-722-2810

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