DHHR report finds $55 million in SNAP, TANF benefits spent out-of-state

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Nearly $55 million in food stamp benefits has been spent outside West Virginia within a 12-month period, according to a study conducted by the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

Delegate Jill Upson (R-Jefferson, 65)
Delegate Jill Upson (R-Jefferson, 65)

The report found that more than $52 million of $457 million in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits were spent out-of-state between Nov. 1, 2014 and Oct. 31, 2015. About $2 million of $29 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits were also spent during that time frame.

Delegate Jill Upson (R-Jefferson, 65) raised concern about the numbers on Wednesday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”

She said about 90 percent of out-of-state spending was in states that border West Virginia, but wants to know why over $1 million was spent in Florida.

“I haven’t been able to find out what the zip codes are that those transactions occurred, but we do know it raises questions because we do know that there’s Disney (World). There’s all sorts of theme parks in Florida,” Upson said.

Almost 7,000 purchases were made in Minnesota, according to the report.

“Minnesota has the Mall of America, so again, it just raises questions where we just need to kind of investigate and look at why there are so many transactions in these areas,” Upson said.

In December, Upson sent a letter to DHHR Secretary Karen Bowling asking her staff to conduct the study.

Some nearby transactions included $14 million in Ohio, $13 million in Virginia, $12 million in Kentucky and $1 million in North Carolina. Far off locations included $85,000 in California, $21,000 in Utah, $3,400 in Hawaii and $1,600 in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“We need to really look at these numbers and kind of drill down into this issue,” Upson said. “We do need to look at that to make sure that West Virginia’s needy families have their resources for them when they need it.”

Upson is the lead sponsor of HB 4454, the Welfare Fraud Prevention Act, which is before the House Judiciary Committee. A similar bill, SB 312, is also being taken up in the Senate.

The legislation would streamline the verification process and provide guidelines for Electronic Benefit Transfer cards using SNAP and TANF benefits. It also would ban the use of the cards in vice and luxury locations.

Bowling issued a statement to MetroNews late Wednesday night regarding the study:

“The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is 100% federally funded and offers nutrition assistance to eligible, low-income individuals and families.

Many of our recipients are elderly, disabled, or children. The recipients of SNAP use their benefits to purchase food for the household such as breads and cereals; fruits and vegetables; meats, fish and poultry; dairy products; and seeds and plants which produce food.

Federal regulations mandate that individuals have access to SNAP approved grocers across state lines. Therefore, the DHHR is not allowed to restrict the use of SNAP benefits to be used solely in West Virginia.

Additionally, regulations allow recipients to utilize their SNAP benefits to purchase food products in other states when traveling across the United States and individuals from other states who receive these same benefits utilize SNAP approved grocers when visiting or traveling through West Virginia.

DHHR routinely monitors for fraud and abuse in these programs.”

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