Missouri food stamp error puts digital records on hold

Tuesday, January 12, 2010 | 7:34 p.m. CST; updated 10:06 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 12, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri has postponed an electronic records project while it waits to learn whether it will be penalized for reporting inflated food stamp participation numbers to the federal government.

Top officials at the state Department of Social Services said Tuesday that they have delayed a pilot project to create electronic versions of the agency's voluminous paper records for people receiving food stamps, Medicaid, child support and cash welfare payments.

The $5 million project in several southwest Missouri counties was to be funded with part of the $14 million in federal bonuses Missouri received over the past six years for its extraordinarily high participation rates in its food stamps program.

But the Department of Social Services acknowledged last month that a computer programming error had caused it to consistently submit exaggerated numbers since September 2002, potentially putting the bonus money in jeopardy.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, have not said yet whether Missouri fill face any financial repercussions because of the error.

Missouri officials said the errors did not result in any ineligible people receiving benefits, and the amount of benefits paid to lower-income households was correct.

The state agency said the actual number of Missouri food stamp participants is around 855,000 — not the more than 1.1 million it reported to the federal government in September. It says the over-reporting generally occurred when one of several food stamp participants in a household left — and thus no longer received benefits — but still was counted by the computer-generated report as if he or she remained in the home.

Administrators from the Department of Social Services appeared Tuesday before the Senate Governmental Accountability and Fiscal Oversight Committee to answer questions about why the mistake occurred.

Alyson Campbell, the director of the agency's Family Support Division, said the agency has taken steps to better verify its numbers for future federal reports. She said the mistake was discovered when someone from MU — who had requested several different data sets from the department — informed officials that the numbers did not appear to match.


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