Forrester working with HHS to curb EBT abuse

CONCORD — State Senator Jeanie Forrester (R-Meredith), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has introduced legislation to specify what the cash assistance benefit included on electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards may be used for, at the recommendation of the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.

Last year Forrester successfully sponsored legislation to align state law with federal law by prohibiting the use of EBT cards at liquor stores and off-premise licensees selling beer and wine, gambling establishments and adult entertainment venues. However, an audit released by the Office of the Legislative Budget Assistant last month concluded that "these restrictions will likely be largely ineffective and difficult to enforce."

The auditors found that while DHHS could monitor where EBT cards are used there are no means of monitoring what they are used to purchase. Moreover, cash withdrawals at automated teller machines represent 78-percent of the $23-million in EBT transactions, further hindering the agency's ability to ensure that cash assistance is used for the purposes for which it is intended. While the federal government funds the food stamp (SNAP) allowance that is also included on EBT cards, the state funds the cash assistance program.

"That's the challenge and that's the frustration," Forrester said. "There's no tracking system. No way to audit." She that after meetings with local welfare directors and Terry Smith of the Division of Family Assistance at DHHS, she believes that most recipients of cash assistance do not abuse it.

Nevertheless, Forrester accepted the recommendations of the auditors that the Legislature more clearly define the purpose of cash assistance and DHHS promulgate rules restricting the use of cash assistance to them. She said that the new legislation prohibits the purchase of particular products and services like alcohol, tobacco, lottery tickets and tattoos that are not essential to subsistence. Following the recommendation of the auditors she expected the restrictions would also apply to those receiving cash assistance by electronic funds transfer (EFT).

Currently the penalties for abusing EBT cards are the loss of the right to use the card for two pay periods for the first offense, four for the second and six for the third and subsequent offenses. Conceding that enforcement will pose a challenge, she said that along with a more aggressive education campaign some consideration will be given to stiffer penalties.