Friday, December 13, 2013
AUGUSTA - In the Sept. 28 Portland Press Herald, the editorial board wrongly chastised the state Department of Health and Human Services and the LePage administration (Our View, "DHHS, not families, at fault for aid overpayment").
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mary C. Mayhew is the commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
This assertion was linked to the recent decision by the Federal Food and Nutrition Service -- which administers the program commonly known as "food stamps" -- to hold state taxpayers accountable for $4.8 million in federal spending for Food Supplement recipients who received more benefits than they were entitled to.
The facts surrounding this issue support the DHHS' contention that the FNS acted improperly, and that this overpayment, like other overpayments by any agency, should be the obligation of those who wrongly received them -- not the obligation of Maine's taxpayers.
The facts are that in March, the FNS ordered the DHHS to recover these benefits from the recipients. Six months later, after intense political pressure, the agency has improperly cited a rule that allows the federal government to shift the expense to Maine's taxpayers.
The FNS bases its actions on an alleged "systemic error." But the FNS itself clarifies that the intent of "systemic error" is "to focus on errors associated with automated eligibility systems and the effects of their implementation."
The error in question has no relation to a glitch in the eligibility system. The FNS' reasoning suggests creative lawyering to reach a politically desirable conclusion. We are confident that the state's administrative appeal will successfully refute this unsupportable interpretation of legal principles.
If the editorial board had checked media reports across the state when this issue was first discussed, it would have seen that the DHHS has taken responsibility from the beginning for a delay in moving rules forward, which resulted from a conflict between state rules and federal statute.
However, we cannot stand idly by and let the FNS shift the cost of this overpayment of benefits to the Maine taxpayer when a federal rule is being applied inaccurately. It would be fiscally irresponsible to do so.
The fact is that benefits in the Food Supplement program are 100 percent federally funded, and those who received additional benefits, though through no fault of their own, were not entitled to them. The DHHS collects overpayments each day on behalf of the FNS. It is done in the normal course of business, just as the IRS may adjust a tax return if a person receives more of a refund than they were entitled to if an error is made processing the return.
By regulation, when the state makes an overpayment in error, including an error by the DHHS, FNS procedures require collection from the recipients. This is standard operating procedure.
When the FNS does impose a penalty on a state, it typically directs the state to invest some or all of the "penalty" into program improvement activities, like technology and training.To require a repayment to the FNS based on a one-time procedural error is outside the norm and would require firm legal rationale that simply does not exist in this case.
The reality is that the federal government is not taking on $2 million of the cost, as the editorial board asserts It is penalizing the state by withholding $2 million in performance bonuses that we earned. These bonuses go to states for excellence in program administration in different program areas.
Since 2003, Maine has been awarded nearly $7 million for outstanding performance in error avoidance, program access, service timeliness, payment accuracy and program improvement. In essence, the program is well-managed.
An additional fact worth mentioning is that Maine has taken a closer look at state and federal statute conflicts and will be implementing the adjustments necessary to ensure that this situation cannot happen again. The editorial board could have learned this fact by simply speaking to the DHHS before publishing its editorial.
To suggest that this administration is demonizing the poor by not allowing the federal government to pass a $4.8 million bill on to the state's taxpayers is simply wrong.
As this administration has stated repeatedly, we must be good stewards of both state and federal funds, and prioritize spending to ensure a sustainable system that serves Mainers most in need. Our decision to make an administrative appeal -- which is not costly in nature -- is to protect state dollars so that they can be used to serve Mainers in need.
The editorial argues that collection of approximately $20 per month from recipients is an undue hardship. The bottom line is that, if the federal government chooses to offer relief to these individuals, it should do so with federal dollars. To shift the expense to Maine's taxpayers for political reasons without a sound legal or factual basis cannot be tolerated.
- Special to the Press Herald