The LePage administration is once again flouting federal rules in its handling of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka “food stamps”), according to the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. In a December 7 letter, FNS Regional Administrator Kurt Messner notified Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew that Maine had the slowest SNAP application processing times in the country between January and June of this year. Messner told Mayhew that if Maine doesn’t correct the problem and speed up processing times, it could face the loss of $10.2 million in federal SNAP administration funding. One hundred percent of SNAP benefits come from the federal government. 

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

Messner noted that FNS had repeatedly attempted to address the issue of timeliness in Maine’s processing of SNAP applications. It required DHHS to submit a corrective action plan to improve the problems in March, but Messner said that Maine has still “not achieved the desired effects.” He added that FNS can provide technical assistance to improve the program administration in order to avoid penalties. He said that a 50-percent federal match in funding is available to reimburse half of the costs to meet the benchmarks. 

Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond (D-Portland) chided Mayhew for her incompetence and promised to submit a bill to speed up the process as well as several other DHHS boondoggles like the loss of $20 million for failing to meet federal certification requirements at Riverview Psychiatric Hospital and ending a contract with a nonprofit to help people navigate through the health insurance system.

“DHHS has shown a brazen disregard for accountability,” Alfond said in a statement. “They have bristled at those who would hold them responsible for the dangerous conditions at Riverview, the sudden decision to end contracts 

that provide needed health care services, and now, the failure to administer the SNAP program. Now the state faces a potential multimillion-dollar penalty for that mismanagement.” 

In a statement, Commissioner Mayhew said the slowdown in the SNAP application process is a “direct result” of the department making the transition from an “antiquated, paper-intensive system” to a “modernized, streamlined approach that supports use of our statewide workforce to process applications throughout the state.” She said that the USDA review of Maine’s SNAP administration “largely coincided” with the department’s transition to the new system and that it had since improved. 

“I am offended by the assertions by some Democrats that our actions are depriving benefits from those who qualify for them and need help,” wrote Mayhew, adding, “Those who need assistance, and qualify for it, will most certainly maintain their eligibility to receive benefits.… And while I am concerned about the lack of timeliness in any case, I will not sacrifice the program’s integrity for application expediency.”

However, Christine Hastedt of the low-income advocacy group Maine Equal Justice Partners said that her organization has received numerous complaints about the LePage administration’s slow processing of SNAP applications for years and she continues to get calls from low-income people who haven’t received their SNAP benefits in a timely manner. She said the department’s new processing system is a “good thing,” but that the transition doesn’t explain why Maine has the slowest processing times in the country because many other states have also been transferring over to similar systems.