Some food stamp recipients and advocates for low-income Mainers are countering the state’s assertion that its policy of including photos on electronic benefit transfer cards is voluntary, saying Department of Health and Human Services staff members have insisted that clients have their pictures taken.

Several people contacted the Portland Press Herald after a story was published Saturday in which the agency defended its photo ID program against criticism from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that DHHS was not making it clear the program was optional. Each person who contacted the newspaper claimed that DHHS is not being forthright about the program, which was rolled out July 1.

Winona Karns, a case manager for an agency that works with disabled people in central Maine, said Monday that on at least two occasions she witnessed DHHS staff members insisting that clients have their picture taken.

In one case, a woman was told that refusing to have a picture taken would result in the loss of benefits. In the other, Karns said, the woman explained that she was a victim of domestic violence and refused to include her picture. DHHS then required Karns to submit a written affidavit affirming that the client was a victim of domestic violence, Karns said.

“These people are being bullied; there is no other way to say it,” she said. “I didn’t question it because I didn’t realize it was voluntary until I read the story.”

Beth Moreland of Augusta, a client of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps or SNAP, said she received a strongly worded letter recently from DHHS that said she needed to visit the local office for a face-to-face interview. If she didn’t schedule the interview, she would risk losing benefits, the letter stated.

Moreland said she had never been asked to schedule an in-person interview, and her previous six-month benefit reviews were done over the phone.

“When I went to the appointment, I was told that I needed to have a photo taken, (that) it was mandatory and that all cards were switching over,” she said.

Two other clients who contacted the Press Herald but asked that their names not be used shared similar stories.

Christine Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group for low-income Mainers, said her organization has heard similar complaints from people who are being told the photos are mandatory.

DHHS spokesman David Sorensen, asked to respond to the complaints from recipients, said in an email that the “department will soon be sending another round of guidance to all DHHS staff, making clear that the photo EBT program has no effect on benefit eligibility.”

Sorensen also said face-to-face meetings are allowed by law, even though they haven’t been used in the past.

The reports from recipients, Karns and Hastedt echo information gathered during an Aug. 18 site visit by officials with the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service office, which oversees the food stamp program. That site visit prompted the USDA to send a letter last week to DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

In the letter, USDA regional administrator Kurt Messner said that if the state did not take corrective action as outlined in the letter, it risked losing federal funds used to administer the program. Maine received nearly $9 million for fiscal year 2013.

The concerns cited by Messner are similar to what both Karns and Moreland detailed.

Messner wrote that the state needs to better communicate to benefit recipients that photo IDs are voluntary, not mandatory. He referenced posters at DHHS offices that seem to indicate recipients must have their photo taken, which is not the case.

He also wrote that the state should no longer require face-to-face interviews with recipients who have not taken part in the photo ID program.

Advocates for low-income families approved of the USDA’s position, saying families or individuals who are going hungry should be helped, not hindered, in efforts to obtain benefits.

Mayhew, in responding to the USDA letter last Friday, did not speak to the requests for corrective action, instead accusing the federal government of repeatedly undermining welfare reform efforts.

“Federal bureaucrats are out of touch with the wishes of Mainers who are crying out for integrity in our welfare system,” she said in a written statement.

On Monday, Mayhew took her fight one step further when she sent a letter to members of Maine’s congressional delegation urging their help on reform efforts, many of which “can only come from Washington,” she wrote.

Mayhew, in her letter to the delegation, also included a set of 15 recommendations for welfare reform action at the federal level. She delivered the same recommendations last week during a meeting of the State Human Services Secretary’s Innovation Group, a conservative organization that describes itself as a network for “activist human services secretaries,” according to its website, and creates model legislation for states.

Mayhew criticized the federal government in her letter for being “solely focused on expanding welfare programs,” and “turning a blind eye to the lack of any meaningful reforms that would make a difference in the lives of the people of Maine.”

Mayhew’s message has been to focus on the increase in food stamp spending in Maine – from $160 million in 2005 to $367 million this year – as evidence that the program is out of hand and needs better safeguards such as photo IDs.

Eligibility for food stamps is determined by income, and more people have become eligible for the program since the recession in 2008, which may help to explain the increased spending.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said in a written statement that she welcomed input from state officials and agreed that fraud and abuse must be prevented. She noted that the USDA has taken steps to bring fraud and abuse in the program to an all-time low.

“And since 100 percent of SNAP benefits are paid for by the federal government – and not states – it is the responsibility of the USDA to make sure the program is administered in a fair way that does not unnecessarily discourage eligible families from applying for benefits,” Pingree said. “We should always keep in mind the goal of the SNAP program is to help families who have fallen on hard times put food on the table.”

Since implementation of the EBT photo policy over the summer, DHHS says 21,000 cardholders have elected to include a photo on their new EBT cards, and only 100 have declined.

“Nobody is helping (applicants) understand,” said Hastedt, with Maine Equal Justice Partners. “We can debate whether or not photo IDs are a good idea, but these administrative changes are creating barriers to access.”