More than 3,000 people in Maine are receiving bills from the government asking for partial repayment of their food stamp benefits.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services overpaid nearly $2 million in 2015 due to accounting errors within the agency, according to the Bangor Daily News. Now, it’s asking for the money back.
The new computer system used by DHHS led to an increased number of agency errors, says Jack Comart, the litigation director at Maine Equal Justice Partners. He led a class-action lawsuit against DHHS in 2015 that resulted in partial reduction of the bills for some Mainers.
“Particularly in the agency error cases, people are upset,” Comart told the Bangor Daily News. “They received these benefits, had no way of knowing they weren’t entitled to them. They’ve used up the benefits and are now being told they have to repay.”
According to Pine Tree Legal Assistance, a nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance to low-income residents of Maine, DHHS is required by federal law to attempt to collect the overpaid funds. This applies even when the overpayment was due to a mistake by the government.
PLTA says that in addition to sending bills, DHHS can take the money directly out of food stamp benefits, Social Security funds, tax refunds and wages.
Samantha Edwards, a spokeswoman for DHHS, told Bangor Daily News, “We tend to be flexible on payment plans, accepting almost any offer of repayment terms” unless the individual has previously been convicted of welfare fraud.
This is not the first time Maine has faced financial shortfalls due to overpayment.
In 2011, another accounting error led to overpayment of over $4 million over four months, according to the Portland Press Herald. When the USDA discovered the error, the agency demanded that Maine return the funds.
At first, Maine tried to bill the affected families for the money. However, the USDA later made the claim directly against the state, prohibiting Maine from getting the funds from the benefit recipients.
Maine’s Medicaid program has also been under fire for administrative errors. Mistakes made from 2005 to 2009 cost the state more than $9 million in federal refunds.
In both of these cases, the families that received benefits were ultimately not billed for the overpayments.