Food stamp audit finds overpayment, possible fraud

BATON ROUGE (AP) — An audit of Louisiana’s food stamp program for low-income families released Monday said weak oversight has allowed for duplicate benefits, overpayments and more than $1 million paid to ineligible residents, some of whom were in prison at the time.

The review by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office also found clerical errors caused $841,615 to be overpaid.

The performance audit, which covered fiscal years 2010, 2011 and 2012, evaluated participant eligibility and participant and retailer fraud in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the federal food stamp program.

The audit found among other things, duplicate benefits were paid to 1,573 recipients and about $1.1 million was paid to 1,761 ineligible residents who were in jail and should not have received the money.

According to the audit, the benefits were paid to prisoners because of unreliable incarceration information the state receives from the Social Security Administration in determining eligibility.

It made several recommendations for improving oversight and spotting fraud.

The Department of Children and Family Services oversees the federal program and is responsible for determining eligibility. Officials with the department said they have safeguards in place against fraud and are reviewing the audit’s recommendations.

In 2011 the department hired a consultant company to examine its payment process and by November 2012 had significantly decreased its payment error, the audit states.

Under the program, participants are issued a debit card that requires a security code and are only allowed to purchase certain grocery items. Tobacco products and liquor are not allowable purchases with the card. The amount of benefits can range depending on household size, from $200 a month for a single person to $1,202 a month for a family of eight, according to the audit.

As of April 2012, there were 880,069 SNAP participants with an average benefit of $312.32 a month.

While the card can be used for purchases anywhere in the country, benefit recipients must live in Louisiana and can’t receive similar benefits from other states.

However, the audit reported that some spending patterns raised the specter of fraud. For example, there were 154 instances totaling $10,000 where debit cards were used in Louisiana and in non-neighboring states within the same hour.

In 2012, 3,060 participants used all of their benefits totaling more than $2 million in other states, although they registered for the program as Louisiana resident. According to the audit, that may indicate they are not living in Louisiana and potentially receiving benefits in another state.

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