Virginia fined $3.8M for food stamp application errors

Emma Gauthier/Capital News Service | 9/20/2019, 6 a.m.
The federal government has slapped Virginia with a $3.8 million penalty because of mistakes made processing almost one in 10 ...
Mr. Bhatti

The federal government has slapped Virginia with a $3.8 million penalty because of mistakes made processing almost one in 10 food stamp applications last year.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, Virginia had the eighth highest error rate among states administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The federal Department of Agriculture imposed the penalty because Virginia had a SNAP error rate of 9.6 percent in 2018 and 9.7 percent in 2017.

“If (a high error rate) occurs two consecutive years, the state receives a fiscal sanction based on the SNAP case-load size and the difference between the state’s payment error rate and the national payment error rate,” said Patrice Hagan, public relations manager for the Virginia Department of Social Services.

SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, is a federal initiative that provides food purchasing assistance to low-income individuals. The USDA oversees the program.

Last year, Virginia granted SNAP benefits totaling about $85 million per month to more than 700,000 residents.

The state can spend half of the penalty on efforts to reduce errors.

Payment errors do not necessarily stem from fraudulent activity, according to the state Department of Social Services. More often than not, the caseworker miscalculated how much assistance a SNAP applicant qualifies for.

For example, the caseworker may have erred in entering the applicant’s income, shelter expenses or medical deductions. About one-third of the errors were caused by the applicant — not the caseworker, according to data presented by the Virginia Department of Social Services.

Errors don’t always mean people received more SNAP benefits than they actually were eligible to receive. In about one-fifth of the errors, the applicants received less assistance than they were eligible for, according to the USDA.

“Virginia got hit with higher error rates over the past couple years because we are one of the last few states to not adopt broad-based categorical eligibility,” said Salaam Bhatti, director of Virginia Hunger Solutions, a nonprofit group that advocates for SNAP and similar programs.

This eligibility model makes it easier for a caseworker to calculate a family’s eligibility for SNAP.

“The Trump administration is seeking to cut the broad-based categorical eligibility option,” Mr. Bhatti said. “So it is likely that many states will have higher error rates once that comes to pass.”

This is not the first time Virginia paid fines because of SNAP errors.

In 2017, the state Department of Social Services agreed to pay more than $7 million after the U.S. Justice Department accused state officials of using fraudulent methods to make their previous years’ SNAP error rates appear artificially low.

(In 2013, Virginia claimed that its error rate was less than one-half of 1 percent — the lowest in the United States.)

Across the nation last year, error rates ranged from 1 percent in South Dakota to 16 percent in Washington, D.C. Virginia was among 20 states sanctioned by the USDA for having higher-than-average SNAP error rates in 2018.

In response to the penalty, Virginia has drafted a corrective action plan as required when a state’s error rate exceeds 6 percent.

The plan calls for biannual meetings in each region, with all local social services agencies to identify causes for errors and develop a strategy to prevent them. In addition, Virginia has asked for permission to use the U.S. Social Security Administration’s data to verify a SNAP applicant’s income.

State officials also plan to address turn-over among caseworkers. The statewide turnover rate among Virginia’s SNAP employees is 19 percent, and one-third of the staff positions in Richmond are vacant.

Mr. Bhatti said Virginia Hunger Solutions would help the state Department of Social Services address the problems.

“We look forward to DSS training their staff to minimize these error rates, guiding counties to pay their caseworkers more and doing whatever else they can to minimize error rates,” he said.