AUGUSTA – The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced today that it has discontinued the use of photos on Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards for the supplemental food assistance program, putting an end to an ineffective policy that threatens eligible Mainers' access to assistance.
Under the program adopted by the State in 2014, recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) could choose to have their photo placed on their EBT card. But federal officials have repeatedly warned Maine about its program, with the Trump Administration most recently stating that it inadequately informs participants that the program is voluntary and inappropriately impedes people from accessing benefits on behalf of family members.
The discontinuation of the photo EBT program is effective immediately.
"Ending this program will help eligible Mainers purchase food and other necessities while reducing state costs and burden," said DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew.
The Department previously collected photos for EBT cards through the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who oversees the Bureau, agreed with the Department's decision to discontinue use of driver license photos on EBT cards.
"Driver license photos were always meant for driver's licenses," said Dunlap. "This change will make it easier for people to obtain a card and get the benefits they need to help them through hard times."
SNAP benefits and EBT cards are issued to households, rather than to individuals. Federal law allows more than one person in a SNAP household to use an EBT card, as well as an authorized representative if an individual is unable to shop on their own. Consequently, retailers cannot legally deny a SNAP transaction simply because the individual presenting the card doesn't match the photo.
Still, some SNAP household members, including children and seniors, have been wrongly denied grocery purchases because they were not pictured on EBT cards.
There is no conclusive evidence that use of photo EBT cards decreases fraud. One of the most common forms of SNAP fraud is trafficking, such as when a recipient sells some or all of their EBT card balance to a complicit retailer at a discount. Because the retail employee is a "willing party to the illegal transaction, the presence of a photograph on the card will do little to deter such trafficking," the Urban Institute found in a recent study.
According to the Congressional Research Service, states that have implemented photo EBT "have generally concluded that the option has or would have little to no effect on recipient trafficking."
Additionally, ongoing costs typically increase over time, the Congressional Research Service found of photo EBT programs.
Use of an EBT card requires a PIN, which provides sufficient security for completing a purchase.
The Department's Fraud and Investigation Recovery Unit (FIRU) investigates allegations of SNAP fraud. The unit is pursuing a grant to fund a full-time data analyst position and purchase advanced fraud-detection software. In addition to the FIRU, the Office for Family Independence Program Integrity Unit conducts a variety of daily, monthly and quarterly reviews.
"The Department is committed to ensuring the integrity of SNAP and all public assistance programs through means that are fair, effective and robust," stated Commissioner Lambrew.
As of December 2018, approximately 20 percent of current Maine SNAP cases, or 19,140, had photo EBT cards. Participants who currently have photo EBT cards may continue to use them, but there will be no option to request a photo EBT card going forward.