Lawmakers push officials to cut food stamp fraud
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Lawmakers pressed Obama administration officials to cut down on persistent abuse and errors in the $70 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, during a House Agriculture Committee hearing on Wednesday.

They highlighted data from the Agriculture Department in 2014 that show the program had a 1.3 percent fraud rate and a 3.2 percent error rate.

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“While the error rate for SNAP is relatively low, it translates to more than $2 billion per year in payments that are issued incorrectly,” Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said.

But officials touted progress in cutting down on those numbers.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) official Jessica Shahin said the illegal sale or purchase of benefits, known as SNAP fraud or trafficking, decreased by roughly 3 percent over the last 20 years thanks to efforts by the Food and Nutrition Service.

Shahin credited improved data to identify suspicious retailers and recipients and said the USDA wants to expand those checks.

She also cited other efforts the USDA hopes to expand, such as the National Accuracy Clearinghouse, which allows some states to view practically real-time data about whether SNAP applicants are receiving benefits in other states.

But while the agency has cracked down on SNAP retailers, sanctioning nearly 2,700 of them in 2015, the fraud rate has been harder to address at the recipient level, with caseworkers and states crunched for resources.

“The lower it gets, the harder it is to hone in on what we can do to make it better,” Shahin said.

Despite a 2013 rule that allowed states to go after some suspicious SNAP recipients, Ohio state auditor Dave Yost said a six-month investigation in his state last year still revealed cases of possible fraud.

“We identified 36 instances where dead people received benefits more than a year after their death,” he said. “In some cases, someone was still using the card.”

But Democrats said the blame should be on the agencies themselves, not on the program, and warned Republicans against cuts.

“That’s neither the dead folks' fault, or whoever’s benefitting. If you know that that’s the case, then you structurally change that,” said Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.). “The panacea for that is not cutting the program; it is putting the resources where they are needed to correct it.”

According to the USDA, SNAP’s 3.2 percent error rate encompasses faulty overpayments and underpayments to recipients, 62 percent of which are traced to administrators.

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) noted that just this week, her home state of New Mexico made headlines for administrators falsifying information on food stamp applications, misconduct some said went on for years.

But Shahin said that compared to other government programs like Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit, the error rate was low.

Kay Brown, of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, though, said the Office of Management and Budget still considers SNAP a high-error program.

And lawmakers also questioned the validity of SNAP’s reported error rate. Until 2015, the rate did not count errors that amounted to less than $50 in value, a figure that was lowered that year to $37.

“So it’s fair to say … it is understated by some amount,” Conaway said.

The hearing was the 16th time the committee has met on the “Past, Present, and Future of SNAP,” a persistent effort by Republicans to shine a spotlight on the program.

“My colleagues from time to time on the other side of the aisle gripe about the number of hearings we’ve had,” Conaway said. “This is $80 billion a year we spend on this program. I think it’s worthy of several hearings to understand what’s going on, so I’m not embarrassed by it.”