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Julie Siple, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published August 04 2013

Minnesota food stamp payment error rate raises concerns

ST. PAUL – Minnesota’s Human Services commissioner is raising concerns about incorrect food stamp payments, after the state’s payment error rate was among the worst in the nation last year.

Unless Minnesota improves its performance, it could face financial penalties from the federal government.

In the last fiscal year, Minnesota had a payment error rate of 5 percent, compared to the national average of 3.4 percent. The errors led to an estimated $30 million in overpayments to recipients and $8 million in underpayments.

Those errors can be caused by county workers, who make mistakes about eligibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – commonly called food stamps – according to Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson.

“We’ve had a dramatic increase in families who qualify for SNAP during this recession. And while the number of families on SNAP has increased, the number of county workers processing these applications hasn’t,” she said.

Minnesota’s food stamp rolls have more than doubled since 2006 to 537,000 participants. The total benefits paid to recipients in Minnesota for the 2012 fiscal year was $750 million.

Jesson can’t explain why Minnesota’s error rate is higher than the national average, but she can say what the state is doing about it.

“We’re working with the counties, and we started earlier this year when we saw these error rates, to implement what we call second-party reviews. And that basically is just having a second set of eyes on every SNAP application to make sure that it’s right,” she said.

The state’s error rate has already fallen this fiscal year to 4.4 percent as of February because of those second-party reviews, Jesson said. This week, she sent a letter to every county, raising concerns about the error rate and asking officials to start reviews if they haven’t yet done so.

In Hennepin County, Kate Heffernan, the area manager for Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health in the Eligibility Supports area, said it’s easy to make mistakes in assessing eligibility. Caseworkers are managing multiple programs at once, and eligibility rules are complicated.

“The systems that we use are very antiquated. There are a lot of manual pieces, and things that I think most people from outside of our organization would think, wow, why can’t you just punch all this information in, and have it take care of it for you, and tell you what you made a mistake on?” she said.

Still, Hennepin County dropped its error rate from about 12 percent last October to about 4 percent as of February, in part due to second-party reviews.

But not every application gets a second look, Heffernan said. “That would probably be unworkable.”

After implementing the second-party reviews, Hennepin County is struggling with the amount of time it takes to approve an application, Heffernan said.

It’s not just county mistakes that cause food stamp payment errors. Sometimes, applicants provide incorrect information or fail to report a change in income or other circumstance.

Ruth Krueger, director of employment and economic assistance for Dakota County, said she doesn’t think people are cheating.

“Most of it is just an honest mistake. Either on the client’s part, or we make an error of computing it,” Krueger said.

That error has different impacts, depending on whether it leads to too much or too little in payments.

“If we make a mistake, and [recipients] get less SNAP benefits than they should have, that really impacts their life,” Heffernan said. “On the other hand, it’s also very tough on clients if we give them too many benefits, and then we later find that out, and we have to go back and do a claim.”

According to the state, Minnesota eventually recovers about 79 percent of its overpayments by collecting from the people it incorrectly paid. Still, if the state doesn’t improve its error rate, it could face financial penalties from the federal government.