Lawmakers want states and USDA to do more to cut error rates in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program administration and are using the farm bill to seek some action. 

Last week, the Food and Nutrition Service released SNAP error rates from 2023 that showed a slight uptick from 2022. The payment errors don’t reflect fraud; instead, they track how accurately states determine eligibility and payment amounts. 

In 2023, SNAP recipients were overpaid at a national average rate of 10.03% and underpaid 1.64%, meaning the total average error rate was 11.68%, according to FNS. It's a small increase from a 11.54% error rate, with 9.84% overpaid, and 1.70% underpaid, in 2022. 

Overpayments totaled more than $10 billion in 2023, according to the House Agriculture Committee. 

Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees criticized the error rates and urged USDA to do more to engage with state SNAP agencies. They also took the opportunity to say their respective proposals for the farm bill could address the problem. 

“House and Senate Republicans stand ready to ensure the next farm bill takes steps to mitigate these occurrences, restore program integrity, and hold states accountable for exploiting the generosity of the American taxpayer,” Senate Ag Ranking Member John Boozman, R-Ark., and House Ag Chair Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., wrote in a joint statement. 

Republican proposals in both chambers would remove a threshold for reporting SNAP errors and require all erroneous payments to be reported similarly to other social safety net programs under the committee’s jurisdiction. Errors under $56 are not now included in public reporting.

USDA collects this data and has shared the unscrubbed rates with the House Agriculture Committee in the past. Typically, there has been just a 3% to 4% difference between the public data and the raw information, but that amounts to billions of dollars, said a House Republican aide. 

The House bill would establish an Office of Program Integrity in FNS that would complement the work of the Office of the Inspector General to provide resources and guidance to states to ensure they are fully implementing laws and regulations. 

The American Public Human Services Association, which works in part with SNAP agencies across the country, supports recommendations for payment accuracy like the creation of a national quality control technical assistance center with third-party support. However, as currently written, the House bill appears more focused on fraud, waste and abuse rather than technical support, said Chloe Green, senior policy association of food and nutrition services at APHSA. 

Additionally, Green said it would be “extremely challenging” for states if the $56 threshold were removed, as it would likely require more staff. It would move state agencies in the wrong direction in improving payment accuracy, and would distract states from addressing other, bigger issues or the root cause of errors, she added.  

The nutrition title framework from Boozman includes provisions to increase the consequences for consistently high error rates. 

Under current policy, states with error rates above the national acceptable rate of 6% for two years in a row are assessed a financial penalty. Alternatively, half the penalty can be invested in improving SNAP program administration in the state, and the rest can be held in reserve for future payments to USDA if the state’s error rates do not improve. 

Based on 2022 and 2023 error rates several states were subject to a financial penalty. These include Oregon, subject to a $15.7 million penalty, Alaska, $12 million, Hawaii, $10.9 million, Pennsylvania, $39.5 million, Maryland, $16.6 million, Delaware $3.9 million and D.C., $4.4 million.

Any state with an error rate above 6% must also submit a corrective action plan. 

The amount poor-performing states have to pay back doesn’t match the amount overpaid, and the provision in Boozman’s framework aims to put more teeth into the law, according to an aide. His office did not offer more details on exactly how much repayments would increase. 

In a blog post, Dottie Rosenbaum, director of federal SNAP policy, and Katie Bergh, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, criticized the proposals. 

The current threshold allows states to focus their efforts on larger errors, Rosenbaum and Bergh wrote. Eliminating the threshold as detailed by both Boozman and Thompson’s proposals would increase the reported error rate and associated penalties.

As a result, they say, states could add more up-front verification requirements that may add more barriers for eligible households. 

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The financial liabilities that come with two years of high error rates can prevent those states from investing in other projects like technology upgrades, Green said. The timing of the quality control reviews and the notice of these penalties also come late in the fiscal year which is challenging for state budgets. 

Both Republican proposals would allow states to hire non-merit employees or private contractors to help with SNAP administration in emergencies. Such staffing flexibility could help states still struggling to bounce back from the Covid-19 pandemic and help with timeliness issues or high error rates, according to a House GOP staff member. 

Rep. GT Thompson and Sen. Boozman.jpgHouse Ag Committee Chair Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., and Senate Ag Committee Ranking Member John Boozman, R-Ark.

Typically, states are encouraged to hire merit-based employees to administer SNAP, which can prevent political influence and ensure the integrity of the program, advocates say. 

Representatives of the Food Research and Action Center and other anti-hunger groups have opposed the privatization provision, arguing that it could lead to “administrative chaos.” 

During the early 2000s, Texas became one of the first states to outsource its eligibility system, which led to delays in application processing and other issues for SNAP participants, according to a Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report. Indiana dealt with similar processing problems in 2007-2009 when it rolled out a privatization initiative, according to CBPP

During the House Agriculture Committee farm bill markup, some panel Democrats moved to strike this provision in an amendment that ultimately failed to pass.

APHSA supports the use of non-merit or contracted staff until but not including eligibility determination, which the House bill allows. Green said the use of non-merit staff could be an additional tool for agencies to meet performance measures like payment accuracy or timeliness. However, she said it’s not the only solution needed. 

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., also called the 2023 error rates “unacceptable” and urged USDA to continue working with states to address the root causes of over- and under-payments. 

“The SNAP payment error rate measures the accuracy of SNAP benefits paid and eligibility determinations by the states, not fraud. In other words, this is about accuracy, not fraud,” Stabenow said. “It is critical that the program is accurate to protect program integrity and ensure people receive the assistance they need to put food on the table.”

In the statement, she also highlighted how her farm bill proposal, The Rural Prosperity and Food Security Act of 2024 could address SNAP error rates. 

AP_Nov_23_Debbie_Stabenow.jpgSenate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) One measure requires USDA to notify a state if its quality control data indicates that its payment error rate is trending above 6%. It also requires the agency through an Office of Technical Assistance at FNS to provide individual assistance to a state agency to identify causes of errors and develop an improvement plan. 

Under her proposal, state agencies would also be required to submit monthly reports to USDA beginning in 2027 with data on activities relating to SNAP application processing and certification. It also would increase to 90% the federal cost share for state administrative costs for developing the monthly reporting system. 

Stabenow would require USDA to consider information from states to calculate an annual customer service metric to be included in the annual notification to states of payment errors. 

The 2018 farm bill included measures to beef up quality control and monitoring, but the pandemic made it difficult to see consistent results. States were not required to report error data to USDA, and the agency did not publish error rates for 2020 and 2021 due to temporary measures that increased benefits and gave states more flexibility to accept new applicants. 

The steps were taken to ensure that individuals and families dealing with periods of unemployment and earnings loss would not experience food insecurity during the pandemic, Rosenbaum and Bergh wrote in the CBPP blog post. 

The flexibility was successful in keeping food insecurity low during the pandemic, they said. However, it may have contributed to higher error rates due to greater workload and less contact with SNAP participants to evaluate benefits, they wrote.  

Still, they emphasized that state SNAP offices and USDA have devoted a lot of attention to reducing error rates and asserted that they have an effective monitoring system in place. 

“Emphasizing payment accuracy to the exclusion of measuring SNAP’s core goal of helping people with low incomes afford a nutritionally adequate diet risks leaving policymakers and the public with inadequate information about how well the program is working for households,” Rosenbaum and Bergh wrote.

Green added the quality control process is very delayed and it can be up to a year before a case is reviewed. Fiscal 2023 still reflects what was happening in the fall of 2022 when there were still spikes in Covid-19. 

"QC puts a mirror on how things are being done, but in a very delayed way," Green said. "I think it's still going to be another couple years until we see really all the pandemic impacted cases going away because of that lag."

Republicans have pushed back on the notion that the pandemic is to blame for these errors and continue to push for greater accountability among state and federal agencies. 

"We are far removed from the pandemic, and it should no longer be used as a crutch,” Boozman and Thompson wrote. 

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