The United Council on Welfare Fraud has always been an advocate for better stewardship of our public assistance programs. It comments on pending changes to program rules announced in the federal register, it proposes ideas to Congressional subcommittees, and it even testifies before Congressional hearings on relevant topics surrounding program integrity.
To extend the organization’s effectiveness, UCOWF will set focused priorities to encourage the re-examination of policies and rules that govern our public assistance programs to bring them in line with today’s realities and technology. To do that, UCOWF has identified five SNAP program changes that are needed and that do not require changes to existing law and five program changes that do require changes in law.
This article will begin with those changes we’d like to see that do not require changes in law.
Safeguarding the integrity of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamps”) requires eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse in the program. A complex solution to a decades old problem. Here are five solutions that should NOT require legislative changes to the 2022 Farm Bill (in other words, changes that can be made now by USDA FNS or by Presidential Executive Order).
- Clear policy guidance that updates/modernizes data sharing in a post 9/11 world – 7 CFR 278.1 and USC 2018(c) provide clear guidance relating to retailer application and transactional data that can be shared with law enforcement:
“… with the exception of EINs and SSNs, any information collected from retail food stores and wholesale food concerns, such as ownership information and sales and redemption data, may be disclosed…”; and, “…except that such information may be disclosed to and used by Federal law enforcement and investigative agencies and law enforcement and investigative agencies of a State government for the purposes of administering or enforcing this chapter or any other Federal or State law…”
In April 2019, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in the Food Marketing Institute vs Argus Leader Media that argues retailer information should be available to the public in FOIA requests. Courts have consistently sided with Argus for the release of the information. A SCOTUS decision is imminent in June/July that will settle this issue.
Unfortunately, FNS policy decisions surrounding “applicant provided information” is currently only available to law enforcement in instances in which the client is a “fleeing felon” or they are actively investigating the client for a SNAP crime. (See 7 CFR 272.1(c)) In the instance of exigent circumstances (such as immediate threats to public safety or terrorism – yes, that happens), law enforcement is prohibited from obtaining information on clients enrolled in the federal SNAP program. This decision silently also applies to information regarding clients that have been administratively disqualified from SNAP participation for fraud and those who have an overpayment. (Overpayment claims are established for those that have obtained taxpayer funds and have a federal debt.) This leads a reasonable person to believe that fraud is a “protected activity” and hand-cuffs law enforcement on the belief that sharing this information could lead to embarrassing or shaming a recipient.
SOLUTION: Clear guidance that non-client provided data in SNAP can be shared with both the public and law enforcement is a common-sense solution. Client provided data should be shared with law enforcement upon request to protect public safety/property.
- Use of Federal or State Client Disqualification Data – FNS has information on all individuals who have been disqualified from the food assistance program in the Electronic Disqualified Recipient System (eDRS), and they share this data with all States; however, FNS does not allow States to act on the information. States are required to double check with the State where the disqualification originated and verify the data to determine that all processes were completed correctly in the originating State. As States are required to upload accurate disqualification data, this is an unnecessary administrative burden for eligibility staff who spend time researching and attempting to communicate with other State staff to re-verify the data – yet FNS accepts this data without question. FNS places a huge burden on States to scrub this data, but they accept it at face value from States. eDRS data should be considered Verified Upon Receipt, and any clients who feel it is not accurate still have Due Process procedures in Fair Hearing requests.
SOLUTION: Allow States to take immediate action on a data match to deny applicants and eliminate waste in the SNAP program.
- Establish Minimum Ration of SNAP integrity investigators to SNAP Households – Resources to administer program integrity vary drastically from State to State. This results in inconsistent enforcement efforts and exposes millions/billions of taxpayer funds to waste/fraud/abuse.
SOLUTION: To ensure adequate resources are provided to address fraud proportionally across the nation, FNS should consider establishing a minimum threshold ratio of investigators to SNAP households. In addition, FNS should share the administrative burden of these resources at more than the current 50-50 match to State expenses.
- Collaboration with State Input on Retailer Authorizations – True modernization of FNS procedures and rules surrounding retailer authorizations are needed. Relying on retailers to “self-report” relating to citizenship status, criminal backgrounds, and the dependence on them to upload their own (potentially falsified) documents, etc. creates an opportunity for fraud that erodes public confidence and trust in a program with so many other safeguards.
SOLUTION: Share retailer applications with the States and allow a reasonable time for the State to conduct background investigations and provide feedback prior to authorization.
- Disqualification of Retailer Owners from SNAP Program Participation – Currently, store owners are not prohibited from being on food stamps and spending those benefits in their own store.
SOLUTION: Upon administrative disqualification of a store, FNS should send the owner through the administrative disqualification hearing process. States can hold the hearing with FNS staff providing the evidence used to disqualify the owner.