Maine’s top health official offered a pointed response Friday to the federal agency that oversees food stamps: Don’t undermine our welfare reform efforts.

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew dismissed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s request for clarity on the state’s plan to include photo identification on electronic benefit transfer cards, calling it an unnecessary “roadblock.”

“Federal bureaucrats are out of touch with the wishes of Mainers who are crying out for integrity in our welfare system,” Mayhew said in a statement. “(The USDA) has repeatedly put up roadblocks to reform, and seems intent on preserving the status quo in state and federal welfare programs.”

Mayhew was responding to a letter Thursday from USDA regional administrator Kurt Messner in which he threatened to cut funding used to administer the program if the state didn’t take corrective action in a number of areas related to its July 1 rollout of the voluntary photo ID program.

First and foremost, Messner wrote, the state needs to better educate benefit recipients that photo IDs are voluntary, not mandatory. He referenced posters from DHHS 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.

Finally, Messner expressed civil rights concerns about whether the state was taking photos of household members who were not the primary food stamp applicant. This often means parents who apply for benefits for their children. If non-applicants are asked to have their picture taken, Messner said that could be a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

It’s not clear if that has happened in Maine. DHHS spokesman David Sorensen said Friday the department is looking into that question and the findings would be included in its response to USDA. Sorensen could not provide an immediate estimate of how much DHHS is spending on the photo ID initiative but said the agency was drawing on its existing budget.

The state has 45 days to respond to USDA’s concerns. If the state does not comply, it could be in danger of losing federal funding.

The loss of funding could be significant. The Associated Press says that in fiscal year 2013, the federal government paid about $8.9 million, about half the cost of administering the program in Maine.

Mayhew said her department plans to respond to the USDA’s letter, “point-by-point to set the record straight on the state’s photo EBT initiative.”

“Many of the assertions in their letter are either misleading or are simply inconsistent with Maine’s departure from Washington’s attitude of ‘more of the same,’ ” she said. “The federal government is solely focused on expanding welfare programs, disregarding the integrity of the food stamp program, 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.”

USDA regional spokesman Mark Abueg said the USDA is committed to working with the state, but wants to ensure the photo ID provision does not inhibit access to benefits.

“Implementation of a photo requirement involves complex legal, operational, and civil rights issues that, if not well planned, can adversely affect the ability of program participants to put food on the table,” he said in a statement.

USDA’s letter was based on an Aug. 18 visit by federal officials to assess the program.

Messner wrote that information gathered during the site visit indicated that there was confusion among both recipients and retailers about whether photos needed to be on the card and also whether someone in a household could use a card if the photo was of someone else.

Curtis Picard, executive director of the Retail Association of Maine, said there was initial confusion among retailers when the program was first rolled out, specifically whether the cardholder needed to match the photo ID.

They don’t. The user only needs to be in the household and have access to the personal identification number associated with the card.

Picard hasn’t heard any concerns or questions from members recently.

Shelley Doak, head of the Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association, also has not heard any concerns from members about the photo ID program.

“There has been no change in their point-of-sale transactions with customers,” she said. “Our members are continuing to abide by the federal agreement that prohibits treating (food stamp) recipients different than any other customer.”

Since implementation of the photo EBT policy this summer, Mayhew said 21,000 cardholders have elected to include their photo on their new EBT cards, while only 100 have declined. That 21,000 number includes both new recipients and people who have reapplied for benefits.

The state has not yet reached out to the more than 200,000 cardholders who were enrolled before July 1, but DHHS spokesman David Sorensen said cardholders can request a photo ID at any time.

The high percentage of new recipients who have opted to include their photo could be due to how DHHS is educating people about the program, according to the USDA’s assessment.

“Information gathered from interviews conducted on-site with staff and external stakeholders, and a review of the state’s materials and practices seem to indicate that the program is a requirement for most clients,” Messner wrote in his letter.

Mayhew did not address that claim in her statement Friday, but Sorensen had a different theory.

“I think the (high percentage) shows that people are responding positively to this,” he said, adding that many are seniors. “They think it provides a level of security.”

Mayhew said the huge increase in food stamp spending – from $160 million in 2005 to $367 million this year – is evidence that the program is out of hand and needs better safeguards like photo IDs. Eligibility for food stamps is determined by income, and more people have become eligible for the program in recent years, which may help to explain the increased enrollment.

Opponents of photo IDs, including Maine Equal Justice Partners and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, have said the policy is simply not necessary.

This is not the first time Gov. Paul LePage and his administration have gone toe-to-toe with the federal government over public benefits, and it may not be the last.

LePage was reelected this month on a platform that focused heavily on reducing fraud and abuse in Maine’s public assistance programs. During the campaign, he touted his welfare reform efforts and pledged to do more in a second term. That message resonated with voters, and not just Republicans, according to polls conducted before Election Day.

Armed with what he may see as a mandate, LePage could pursue additional measures to address welfare spending, including making photo IDs for all benefit recipients mandatory, rather than optional.

Sorensen said the administration does not currently have plans to take that step, but it believes that it could do so without federal approval.

A handful of states, including Massachusetts, have implemented mandatory photo ID programs, while others have studied them and concluded they do not reduce fraud or save money.