Dead people got food stamps in Ohio, audit shows

Tighter controls sought in billion-dollar system.

Food stamp aid by county

Ohioans received $202 million in aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in February, the most recent data available. The program’s financial reach in area counties:

Butler: $5,071,852

Champaign: $500,562

Clark: $3,069,693

Greene: $1,507,310

Hamilton: $15,618,440

Logan: $649,300

Miami: $885,543

Montgomery: $10,195,165

Preble: $490,458

Warren: $961,580

Source: Ohio Department of Job & Family Services

A state audit released this week outlines abuses of Ohio’s food stamp program, including more than 1,800 instances of dead people receiving aid.

The study of Ohio’s $2.5 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, covered the first six months of 2015. Problems uncovered, which included recipients carrying large balances on benefit cards and spending large sums outside the state, “clearly suggest there is fraud occurring in this program,” Ohio Auditor Dave Yost said.

When a food stamp recipient dies, benefits often continue for a short time until the system catches up. But the audit found 36 instances in which recipients died prior to Jan. 1, 2014, and were issued $24,406 in benefits into 2015. Yost suggested more frequent checks.

“There needs to be tighter controls over these dollars,” he said. “The death benefit comparison needs to be made quarterly to safeguard our money.”

More than $202 million in SNAP assistance went to 1.6 million Ohioans in February, the most recent month in which statewide data was available, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, which oversees the program.

That money is loaded onto Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, cards. The audit discovered one card had a balance of $20,610 and three others carried more than $16,000. The most a recipient can receive per month is $1,169 (family of eight), but 173 recipients had balances greater than $5,000.

Ohio JFS says it is taking steps to reduce risks in the SNAP program.

Popular hotline

Individual counties also work to combat fraud. In Montgomery County, a fraud hotline gets about 1,000 calls per month, said county JFS spokesman Kevin Lavoie. The number is (937) 225-6035.

Donyce Montgomery, a county JFS division manager, says the county totaled nearly $742,000 in fraud payment collections through May, which is on pace to exceed last year’s total of more than $1 million.

“It’s illegal, but they figure out ways to turn food stamps into cash by selling them for half of what they’re worth,” she said. “People see what’s going on. Food stamps aren’t supposed to just turn into money; they’re to buy food. Most of the time the kids are the ones who suffer.”

The county had more than 80,000 food stamp recipients in February, accounting for about 15 percent of its population. That was slightly higher than the state average of 14.1 percent.

Meigs County in southeast Ohio had the state’s highest percentage, with 24 percent of its population receiving aid.

Clark County had the highest percentage in this region, at 18 percent. Warren County has the lowest — 3.8 percent — while Butler County was below the state average at 11 percent.

Mike Calabrese, director of Opportunities for Individual Change, a Springfield nonprofit and community action agency, said Ohio has bigger problems than food stamp fraud. Lack of good jobs is Clark County’s most pressing issue, he said.

“Nutrition is a problem with low-income people and that bar keeps moving further and further toward the middle class,” Calabrese said. “There’s fraud everywhere, big corporations, you name it. People tend to sell (food stamps) to people in their income category. To investigate it heavily is almost tripping over a dollar to pick up a dime.”

Crossing borders

The audit also analyzed how much SNAP money was spent out of state, which could indicate the recipient does not live in Ohio, is receiving benefits in multiple states, or is selling benefits. More than $28.7 million in SNAP funds were spent outside of Ohio by 118,316 recipients.

Not counting border states, Florida, Georgia and Minnesota saw the most activity. More than $596,000 in benefits were used in the southwest Minnesota city of Marshall.

Among states bordering Ohio, Ashland, Ky., had the most activity ($1.36 million), followed by Mason, W.Va., at $1.3 million.

Other findings in the audit:

  • The state generated seven reports that identified retailers and recipients as "very high risk" for fraud. Some 151,360 recipients were identified on multiple reports. Of the retailers, 37 were flagged on five of the reports, and 1,412 were flagged on four.
  • More than $28.5 million in even-dollar transactions (exceeding $100) spent at 3,200 retailers were found. These "are not common when purchasing food, particularly at small retailers where inventories are more limited," the audit said.
  • In 2011, 17 cards were replaced 10 or more times. That happened only twice in the first six months of 2015.

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