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Food and Nutrition Service Issues Final Rule on SNAP Photo EBT Cards

Supplemental_Nutrition_Assistance_Program_logo_SNAPThe USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has issued a final rule updating regulations for states choosing to add photos to electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards as part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which offers nutrition assistance to millions of low-income families. The final rule was published in the Federal Register last month and went into effect Jan. 12, 2017.

The SNAP EBT cards are issued to households, not individuals, and the updated rule establishes procedures to ensure that any member of a household or authorized representative, including anyone permitted by the household to purchase food on its behalf, with a valid PIN who is not pictured on the photo EBT card can still use the card. The rule also prohibits state agencies from having photo EBT card requirements that affect the household’s eligibility for the program. Among other guidelines, the rule also clarifies that states cannot charge households replacement fees for any card issued as part of the implementation of the photo EBT card option. If a state fails to follow the requirements of the final rule, it faces penalties, which could include the loss of federal funding.

“The FNS rule is unlikely to have any broad effect on the card industry and likely only a minimal effect, if that, on EBT itself,” says Brian Kibble-Smith, long-time EBT policy expert who is no longer active in the field. “It appears to be more of a recognition that the issues and obstacles raised at the time of the 2008 legislation on the photo EBT card were valid. Overall, the rule seems designed to enable an easier walk-away from a policy that wasn’t given enough practical analysis in the first place.”

SNAP fully phased out paper coupons for EBT cards by 2004. In 2008, lawmakers provided states the authority to use photo EBT cards in their SNAP programs under the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 in an effort to curb use of the cards by individuals who were not SNAP participants. However, a 2015 study by the Urban Institute determined that, while the EBT cards improved program participation and eliminated the stigma of using food coupons,  the “the cost estimates of operating a photo EBT policy, weighed against the limited expectation of altering the behavior of would-be traffickers, suggest strongly that photo EBT cards are not a cost-effective approach to combat trafficking.”

Kibble-Smith says if a state chooses to add a photo to its SNAP EBT cards, the EBT services provider should be able to adjust its fee to the state to recoup the added cost.

Adding photos to EBT cards for SNAP was “a measure intended to combat fraud and benefit diversion through handing cards off to others, but I doubt anyone ever even studied the underlying issue to see if it was such a big problem that it required a response, or whether a photo card was the right response,” Kibble-Smith tells Paybefore. “We know the photo card added costs to the programs and reduced convenience, but I doubt anyone ever considered at the time whether the medicine was worse than the illness.”

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