February 3, 2011 in News, Region

Bills target questionable welfare card use

By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – It soon could get a lot tougher for welfare recipients to use their government benefit cards at strip clubs, tattoo parlors and taverns.

Legislation considered Thursday by a Senate panel seeks to block usage of Electronic Benefits Transfer cards, or EBTs, for many things, from guns and body piercings to booze, cigarettes, lottery tickets and casino ATMs.

Recipients would be barred from buying things clearly not intended for children when spending money from the state’s biggest welfare program – formally known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF – under the proposals, which were considered Thursday by the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee.

The panel got no objections from Susan Dreyfus, head of the state’s giant welfare agency the Department of Social and Health Services. The state already bars the cards’ use for gambling and lottery tickets. The real question was the best way to prevent such use of the cards and to crack down on fraud and abuse.

Legislators have proposed several bills that would restrict the use of EBT cards, which are similar to debit cards tied to a welfare recipient’s account. The cards can carry two different amounts: one for a cash benefit and another to be used for food.

Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, said he used to believe the vast majority of EBT cards are used correctly, for basic needs like food, clothing, shelter, utilities and transportation. But in the wake of news reports that showed cards have been used at casinos, strip clubs and smoke shops, Carrell said, “I no longer believe that.”

The EBT cards are sometimes traded for drugs, he said, or sold on Craigslist by people trying to trade a larger food value for quick cash. Even though the cards require using a personal identification number, the owner can turn over the PIN with the card. After selling the card or trading it for drugs, the owner can then claim it was lost or stolen and get a new one.

The department replaces some 37,000 cards a year reported lost or stolen, and some of those are being fraudulently traded or sold, Carrell said.

With the state cutting all budgets, it’s important to crack down on waste and fraud “to make sure whatever we leave on the table gets to the people,” said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, who proposed bills to require all welfare recipients provide proof every six months that they are eligible and to end cash payments, which some receive instead of EBT cards.

The intent of TANF is to benefit children, Zarelli said, but some of the money ends up being used for cigarettes, alcohol or other “things preferred by adults.”

One of Carrell’s bills would create an office to investigate welfare fraud and abuse in the state Auditor’s Office. Dreyfus said the investigations should stay with DSHS, where she is hiring a new director for the office that investigates fraud, and putting that operation directly under her. She’d need more staff resources go get it done.

Carrell countered the department already has the authority to investigate these problems for years. “Exactly what should give us the assurance that this time, the football isn’t going to be pulled out again, like Lucy does?”

Dreyfus said DSHS is eager to work with the Legislature on the reforms. Chairman Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said the bills “have a lot of moving parts. Obviously, nothing’s passing today.”


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