Lawmakers could save millions by targeting food stamp fraud -- will they?

As House and Senate negotiators meet for the first joint talks on a bill that includes sharp cuts to food-stamp funding, an open question is whether lawmakers will get serious about targeting fraud in the massive program.

A recent inspector general audit suggests a full-blown crackdown on fraud could save $222 million a year.

The amount appears relatively small considering the government pays out roughly $70 billion in annual food stamps benefits. But negotiators will likely consider every penny of potential savings as they try to bridge the gap between the GOP-led House’s proposed $40 billion cut and the Democrat-led Senate’s $4.5 billion cut.

Food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are part of the larger farm bill but are being dealt with through the House’s separate Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity bill.

House Speaker John Boehner recently said the bill “strengthens one of our nation’s welfare programs for the neediest Americans … roots out waste, fraud and abuse, encourages able-bodied adults to find work and saves taxpayers more than $39 billion.”

Among the anti-fraud measures in the bill, also known as H.R. 3102, is one that requires states to get tough on households that repeatedly ask for replacement EBT cards, which have largely replaced food stamps or vouchers as the method by which Americans purchase food at stores.

Others focus on retail “trafficking” and provide funding for pilot programs that could potentially improve existing state-federal partnerships that “identify, investigate and reduce retailer fraud.”

Some question whether targeting fraud gives enough bang for the buck.

Kansas GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp points out that fraud accounts for a small percentage of spending for the food stamp program. Enrollment has increased by 70 percent since 2007 to serve more than 44 million low-income Americans, according to the 2012 Agriculture Department Office of Inspector General report.

“The massive growth in food stamp spending has little to do with fraud, and much more to do with a poorly designed welfare program,” Huelskamp, who has a doctorate in agriculture policy, told “We need true reform that transforms food stamps from a way of life -- and targets help to the truly needy.”

Senate Democrats are asking the negotiators, or conferees, to reject the steeper House cuts, arguing Congress should not balance the federal budget “on the backs of the most vulnerable.”

New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, this week signed a letter along with 38 other chamber Democrats and independents urging the conferees to reject eligibility changes that would “prevent millions of children, seniors and families facing a constant struggle against hunger from accessing nutritious food.”

Aside from the cuts being considered on the Hill, recipients automatically had benefits cut starting Friday when funding increases included in President Obama’s 2009 stimulus law come to an end.

The office of Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, declined to provide information about how much H.R. 3102 would save by cutting waste, fraud and abuse.

The projected potential savings from fraud-cutting is detailed in the inspector general report, which found $3.7 million in questionable monthly payouts across 10 states.

Much of the fraud involves the owners and/or employees of smaller, so-called convenience stores exchanging or trafficking SNAP benefits for cash, cigarettes, drugs and guns.

The $222 million figure was reached by multiplying the number by 12 to get an annual amount, then by five to get an estimate for all 50 states.

The audit found some of the recipients had “erroneous” Social Security numbers; were receiving duplicate benefits in the same state; getting benefits “simultaneously” from at least one other state; listed as “disqualified from getting benefits; were “potentially deceased” or using a dead person’s Social Security number to collect benefits.

Huelskamp is proposing requirements for “able-bodied adults to be productive” and to turn food stamps into a block grant, similar to the plan in House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal.

“It’s time for wholesale reform that really helps people, instead of nibbling around the edge of long overdue reform,” he said.