House debates health and human services bill

By T.W. Budig, ECM CapitolReporter

More stringent controls on electronic benefit cards (EBT) — cards used for issuing food support and cash assistance in general assistance and other welfare programs — is one provision in the health and human services reform bill debated in House Thursday, March 29.

House Health and Human Services (HHS) Finance Committee Chairman Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, styled the EBT card policy changes as some of the “common sense” reforms found in his bill.

“It’s good to scrutinize every (HHS) dollar,” he said, speaking off the House floor.

While users of EBT cards already are prohibited from purchasing such items as tobacco and alcohol, the bill stipulates EBT card holders found guilty of purchasing prohibited items  lose the card for one year, two years for a second offense, and permanently for a third offense.

“If you do it three times, you’re off the program,” said Abeler.

Further, the bill limits EBT cash fund use to Minnesota and neighboring states. Concerns have been raised by EBT cash fund use in states such as California or Hawaii, distant places where people of limited means are less likely to visit, Abeler said.

“The thought is some people are selling them,” said Abeler of EBT cards.

That is, cards worth $200 in benefits are being sold for cash at $150, he said.

Other provisions relating to EBT cards is a requirement the head of household’s name be on the card. The bill also allows for data sharing between the Department of Public Safety and Department of Human Services in efforts to stop welfare fraud.

One Democratic lawmaker, while not opposing the EBT card reforms, noted that members of the public have expressed concerns that there’s a kind of stereotyping of poor people.

“We have a tendency to demonize poor people,” said Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester.

According to the Department of Human Services, in 2010 some 190,600 cases on average per month received benefits through electronic benefit transfers.

Some $571 million in food support was distributed, involving more than 20 million transactions.

All but three percent of the transactions occurred in Minnesota. Of the three percent, half occurred in border states, half in another state or territory.

Almost 4 million cash benefit transactions occurred in 2010, involving about $207 million.

Ninety-eight percent of the transactions occurred in Minnesota.

Less than one percent occurred in border states, about one percent occurred in another state or territory.

Abeler said the EBT card reforms are bipartisan in nature.

Still, Abeler views his bill less about EBT cards than providing the disabled with greater opportunities at living independently and achieving other goals.

For instance, a provision in the bill removes income asset caps to lessen the need for the disabled to “spend down” incomes or otherwise not work in order to protect their program eligibility.

The HHS legislation spends no general fund dollars — about $4 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding is used.

“It was a pleasure to bring back a bill that has a fiscal target of zero,” said Abeler, introducing the bill to the House this evening.

Last session Abeler helped craft a HHS finance bill that cut close to $2 billion.

Abeler, speaking before the House floor debate, said if his bill went to Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in its current form, “He’d (Dayton) sign it.”

A lot of commonality exists between the House HHS bill and the Senate’s, said Abeler.

The bills are likely to go to conference committee.

The House debated Abeler’s bill into the evening.