In Friday’s MaineToday Media newspapers across the state, the editorial board wrongly chastised the Department of Health and Human Services and the LePage administration.

This assertion was linked to the recent decision by the federal Food and Nutrition Services to hold state taxpayers accountable for $4.8 million in federal spending for food supplement recipients who received more benefits than they were entitled to.

The facts surrounding this issue support DHHS’s contention that FNS acted improperly, and that this overpayment, like other overpayments by any agency, should be the obligation of those who wrongly received them — not the obligation of Maine’s taxpayers.

In March, FNS ordered DHHS to recover these benefits from the recipients. Six months later, after intense political pressure, the agency has improperly cited a rule that allows the federal government to shift the expense to Maine’s taxpayers.

FNS bases it actions on an alleged “systemic error,” but FNS itself clarifies that the intent of systemic error is “to focus on errors associated with automated eligibility systems and the effects of their implementation.”

The error in question has no relation to a glitch in the eligibility system. The agency’s reasoning suggests creative lawyering to reach a politically desirable conclusion. We are confident that the state’s administrative appeal will successfully refute this unsupportable interpretation of legal principles.

If the editorial board had checked media reports across the state when this issue was first discussed, it would have seen that DHHS has taken responsibility from the beginning for a delay in moving rules forward, which resulted from a conflict between state rules and federal statute.

However, we cannot stand idly by and allow FNS to shift the cost of this overpayment of benefits to the Maine taxpayer when a federal rule is being applied inaccurately. It would be fiscally irresponsible to do so.

Benefits in the food supplement program are 100 percent federally funded, and those who received additional benefits, though through no fault of their own, were not entitled to them.

DHHS collects overpayments each day on behalf of FNS. It is done in the normal course of business, just as the IRS may adjust a tax return if a person receives more of a refund than they were entitled to when there is an error processing the return.

By regulation, when the state makes an overpayment in error, including an error by DHHS, FNS procedures require collection from the recipients. This is standard operating procedure.

In those instances when FNS does impose a penalty on a state, it typically directs the state to invest some or all of the “penalty” into program improvement activities, such as technology and training. To require a repayment to FNS based on a one-time procedural error is outside the norm and would require firm legal rationale that simply does not exist in this case.

The reality is that the federal government is not taking on $2 million of the cost as the editorial board asserts. It is penalizing the state by withholding $2 million in performance bonuses that we earned. These bonuses go to states for excellence in program administration in different program areas.

Since 2003, Maine has been awarded nearly $7 million for outstanding performance in error avoidance, program access, service timeliness, payment accuracy and program improvement. In essence, the program is well-managed.

An additional fact worth mentioning is that Maine has taken a closer look at state and federal statute conflicts and will implement the adjustments necessary to ensure that this situation cannot happen again. The editorial board could have learned this fact by simply speaking to DHHS before publishing its editorial.

To suggest that this administration is demonizing the poor by not allowing the federal government to pass a $4.8 million bill on to the state’s taxpayers is simply wrong.

As this administration has stated repeatedly, we must be good stewards of both state and federal funds, and prioritize spending to ensure a sustainable system that serves Mainers most in need. Our decision to make an administrative appeal — which is not costly in nature — is to protect state dollars so that they can be used to serve Mainers in need.

The editorial argues that collection of approximately $20 per month from recipients is an undue hardship. The bottom line is that, if the federal government chooses to offer relief to these individuals, it should do so with federal dollars.

To shift the expense to the Maine’s taxpayers for political reasons without a sound legal or factual basis cannot be tolerated.

Mary C. Mayhew is commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services

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