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Food stamp fraud forces legislation, government commission

The Massachusetts legislature is calling for further reforms to the Electronic Benefit Transfer food stamp system after multiple reports of fraud uncovered a lack of oversight in the system.

Paulette Song, the deputy communications director for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said a commission was formed earlier this year to look at possibilities of further reforming the system.

“The Cashless Commission was formed in the fall to look at reforming the EBT system,” Song said. “If it is possible to move to a cashless system, the commission is going to make recommendations on how to do that.”

The Department of Transitional Assistance deposits monthly food stamp benefits into an EBT account, according to their website. To use the funds, EBT cards are provided to use at store checkouts to pay for food. The receipt will show the amount of money left in the account.

The Attorney General’s office charged 22 people for selling EBT benefits for cash earlier in the year, according to a press release from April.

Daniel Curley, commissioner of the Department of Transition Assistance who also sits on the Cashless System Commission, said the commission was formed to see if reform was possible in two ways.

“One, we are really looking at the possibility of a cashless system within this commission and what that might be,” Curley said in an email. “They also asked us to look at what we call vendor payments that ultimately are payments for rent and utility for people who are having difficulty meeting those requirements.”

Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick signed a bill in July that restricts the use of the Electronic Benefit Transfer system, prohibiting the cards from being used for things such as strip clubs, pornography, firearms, ammunition, vacations, body modifications, jewelry and bail.

Before signing, Patrick worked to amend the bill because he said it would not be possible to realistically monitor and block the use of EBT cards for specific items.

“I sign this bill with the understanding and on due notice that this administration will not enforce what cannot be enforced with respect to the use of EBT cards,” Patrick wrote in a statement when he signed the bill on July 27.

When the governor signed the reform, Press Secretary Kim Haberlin released some of the governor’s concerns with the bill in an email.

“No centralized system exists to block the purchase of specific items, as has been conveyed by Massachusetts’ EBT vendor, Xerox,” Haberlin said.

Haberlin also said neither state nor federal governments had signaled they would block individual purchases for EBT recipients.

“This means a system to block individual purchases would have to be built only for Massachusetts and would be very costly for retailers,” she said.

Mark Rysman, a professor of economics at Boston University, said many people would be in favor of a cashless system.

“The EBT is usually done with a visa type card, basically with a magnetic stripe and you just swipe it,” Rysman said. “You don’t really stand out in a public place which is attractive to people and you don’t look different than anyone else in line.”

Curley said moving to a cashless system would not affect any individual’s ability to apply or receive assistance.

The Cashless System Commission is required by Massachusetts law to make its recommendation by Dec. 31.

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