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State to pay $17.5 million for improper reporting of SNAP benefits

Commonly known as food stamps, SNAP provides food assistance to those who qualify as low-income. (CNN)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida has agreed to pay $17.5 million to resolve allegations that go back a decade regarding improper claims involving the state’s administration of food stamps.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Monday announced the Florida Department of Children and Families agreed to the settlement over allegations that, starting in 2010, the state agency “injected bias” into its reporting about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which reduce its error rate. The action resulted in the state agency receiving “unentitled performance bonuses” in 2011 and 2012, according to federal prosecutors.

The investigation into the agency’s actions involved allegations that the “integrity of the SNAP quality control process was weakened by third-party consultants and/or the implementation of methods that injected bias into the quality control process,” OIG Special Agent in Charge Bethanne M. Dinkins said in a press release announcing the settlement.

Concerned individuals “reported that cases were not being treated in a consistent manner and that certain advice from consultants and/or the implementation of certain methods resulted in identified errors being diminished rather than used to improve eligibility determinations,” she added. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s SNAP, which until 2008 was known as the Food Stamp Program, relies on states to administer benefits.

While the federal agency funds the SNAP program, states determine whether applicants are eligible for benefits. To ensure that quality-control processes are in place, the federal agriculture department “requires that these processes be free from bias and accurately report states’ error rates in awarding benefits,” the press release noted.

The federal agency, which reimburses states for a portion of their administrative expenses for SNAP, provides performance bonuses to states that report the lowest and most-improved error rates each year and can impose financial sanctions on states with high error rates that do not demonstrate improvement.

The allegations against Florida accused DCF of submitting “false quality control data and information” to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which resulted in the state receiving “unentitled performance bonuses” for fiscal years 2011 and 2012, the release said.

In addition to paying the federal government $17.5 million, the state agency has agreed to forego payment of an additional $14.7 million in unpaid bonuses that were awarded for 2013 and 2014, according to the release.

Federal prosecutors settled similar allegations with state agencies in Virginia, Wisconsin, Texas, Louisiana, Alaska and Mississippi, as well as with Osnes Consulting, which advised many of the state agencies.