Friday, May 24, 2013
Food stamp recipients in Maine who received extra benefits last year will not have to repay the government after all, federal officials say, so the mistake could cost the state nearly $3 million.
Mary Mayhew, commissioner of Maine's Department of Health and Human Services
Joe Phelan / Staff Photographer
In this August 2008 file photo, Keven Gillette of Portland uses a magnetic food stamp card to buy his groceries. Maine food-stamp recipients who erroneously received extra benefits last year will not be required to repay the government, according to a letter sent this week to Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.
Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer
In a letter sent Monday to Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said a "systematic error" led to overpayments for about 70,000 Maine families under the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. The average overpayment totaled about $70 per household over four months in 2011.
"As a result, (the USDA) is establishing a claim of $4,861,920 against Maine and is prohibiting DHHS from collecting the over-issuances from the households affected by the DHHS decisions," the letter reads.
Mayhew said Thursday that Maine will appeal that claim. She said the federal government reversed an earlier position because of "political pressure." In March, the USDA told the state that it could try to recoup the overpayments from recipients.
"We are surprised and dismayed" by this week's letter, Mayhew said, "especially because we have a letter dated March 30 that instructed Maine to pursue collection of overpayment."
From April through July of last year, about one-third of all food stamp recipients in Maine were given more than they were eligible to receive. The error was caused by the state and federal governments' competing legal requirements, according to the USDA.
In 2010, federal officials boosted food stamp benefits as a way to offset increased heating costs. The 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act provided the extra funds for the program.
Those benefits were reduced back to normal levels by April 2011. Maine, however, continued to distribute benefits in the higher amount until July 2011.
The USDA discovered the error through an audit in November and said it wanted the money back. Initially, the agency said repayments could be considered on a case-by-case basis, and it gave the DHHS discretion to lower repayments for some recipients.
That was detailed in the letter to the state in March.
In July of this year, the DHHS sent letters telling recipients that they would receive fewer benefits in the coming months to make up for overpayments. Many families protested. Benefits have not yet been cut back.
"We heard from dozens of food stamp beneficiaries who suddenly, out of the blue, were informed that they owed the state $80," U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said in a prepared statement Thursday. "These families didn't do anything wrong, the overpayment was due to an administrative mistake, and there was no way they could have possibly known they were getting a few dollars more a month than they should have."
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
Kristen Rorer of Waterville was one of the food stamp recipients who called Pingree. She said she receives $185 a month in benefits and uses coupons to stretch every dollar.
"The price of food just goes up and up, but benefits don't go up," she said. "Is the state going to be sending us letters now telling us we can keep the money?"
Dorothy Soule of Farmington also got the letter saying she owed the state money.
"It totally hit me out of the blue. I went into a panic attack," said the former librarian, who lives on disability and gets $181 a month in food stamps.
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