Exclusive: Maine facing sanctions from feds over food program

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is violating federal law and now ranks last among all states for its administration of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program, or food stamps.

A sharply worded, Dec. 7 letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture put DHHS on notice.

“The State’s chronically poor performance in timeliness is in direct conflict with the application processing statutory and regulatory provisions meant to protect low-income household’s right to receive nutrition assistance benefits in a timely manner,” wrote Ken Messner, the acting regional administrator for the USDA’s northeast region.

The letter goes on to catalog the department’s abject failure to review applications for SNAP in a timely manner.

In 2014, Maine ranked 36 out of 53 state agencies. That ranking has “deteriorated rapidly,” with the state now ranked 53 out 53 state agencies.

The department is in free fall and has decided to openly ignore both state and federal law, perhaps to force a confrontation with federal authorities.

Not only is the state failing to review applications as required, it’s also struggling to produce data, is nonresponsive to oversight and has failed to improve its performance after multiple contacts from the USDA. A corrective action plan created by the state in March has not improved the department’s poor performance.

Eligible low-income families are not receiving the help they need and more people are going hungry.

The department’s failures are disproportionately hurting families with children and older Mainers and retirees, particularly those living in more rural parts of the state.

In Maine’s 1st Congressional District, there are 40,708 households receiving food assistance. Of those, 26 percent include at least one person older than 60 and 42.5 percent include children under the age of 18. The median household income for these families is $19,340. About 92 percent of the recipients are white.

In Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, significantly more households receive SNAP benefits: 57,725. Of those, 26.6 percent include at least one person older than 60 and 43.3 percent include children younger than 18. The median household income is less than in the southern part of the state at $17,645. About 95 percent of the recipients are white.

Meanwhile, Gov. Paul LePage and DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew brag about fewer people receiving food stamps in Maine, even as hunger is growing.

From 2014 to 2015, the department has cut more than 40,000 people from the program.

At the same time, food insecurity generally and very low food security – hunger – are increasing in Maine, while it’s going down or holding steady nationally.

In fact, Maine ranks third in the nation for the number of people with very low food security at 7.5 percent.* Only Arkansas (8.1 percent) and Missouri (7.9 percent) are worse.

If the department’s goal is to make more people hungry, the strategy is working. Under LePage and Mayhew, more people are hungry and the department isn’t doing its job.

The department must take “swift and immediate action” to improve the way it processes SNAP applications, according to the USDA letter, or it faces the loss of federal funding.

What’s not clear is if the loss of federal funding is really a threat that will prompt corrective action.

LePage and Mayhew seem focused on the destruction of the Department of Health and Human Services and appear unwilling or unable to take action to make improvements, even when required.

They have already lost $20 million of federal funding for the state’s psychiatric hospital and have made little progress in fixing the problems that put patient and staff safety in jeopardy, and they have put at risk other dollars by requiring photos on EBT cards, which the USDA says is a violation of civil rights.

Additionally, they are willing to ignore or violate state and federal law, to push the envelope daring someone to hold them accountable.

They ignore the feds and the Legislature with impunity, and the people who are being hurt are largely Maine families, many of them already vulnerable.

The LePage administration must be held accountable. The Legislature must take action, including a complete review of the department’s activities and behavior.

While the USDA is most likely to start with sanctions if the department fails to act, it’s also time to consider other alternatives, including receivership for critical DHHS functions such as the psychiatric hospital or allowing another state to administer Maine’s SNAP program.

If the LePage administration can’t get the job done, it’s time to find someone who can.

*CORRECTION: The original column incorrectly reported the percentage of Mainers suffering from very low food insecurity. The correct number is 7.5 percent.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.