The Bulletin

Federal government says Virginia is overcalculating too many SNAP payments

By: - July 31, 2019 11:15 pm

Virginia just launched its new Office of the Children’s Ombudsman, aimed at overseeing the state’s child welfare system. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Virginia got a slap on the wrist this week and may be subject to financial penalties after the federal government found that the state had one of the highest rates of error in the nation in calculating its food-assistance payments.

According to data released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Tuesday, Virginia miscalculated its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, payments to recipients in about 9.62% of cases during fiscal year 2018. It had the eighth-highest error rate among the 50 states, outstripped by Washington, D.C., Rhode Island, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, Iowa and Montana.

Most of Virginia’s errors were overpayments of the benefit, which is available to low-income individuals and families depending on their degree of need. The agriculture department found that Virginia had a 7.89% rate of overpayment of SNAP benefits, compared to a 1.73% rate of underpayment.

The agency emphasized that the error rates are not a measure of fraud.

In response to the department’s findings, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue sent letters to the governors of the 15 states with the highest error rates, including Gov. Ralph Northam.

The Department of Agriculture also announced that it intends to impose over $26 million in sanctions on states with high rates of error “to ensure they are working diligently to improve accuracy.” Sanctioned states will have a choice of either paying the full penalty or reinvesting half of it in measures approved by the Food and Nutrition Service to reduce their error rate.

The potential crackdown on the SNAP program comes as President Donald Trump’s administration considers bumping 3.1 million people off the benefit entirely by ending what’s known as “broad-based categorical eligibility.” Virginia, though, likely won’t be hugely impacted by the change. It is one of only 11 states that hasn’t implemented the rule, despite attempts by some lawmakers to do so.

In a statement, the Virginia Department of Social Services, which handles the state’s SNAP benefits, said Virginia received a fiscal sanction because its error rate exceeded 6.8%, the national performance measure, two years in a row. The department noted, though, that between the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years, Virginia’s error rate dropped by 0.8%.

According to the statement, the state is working to improve in several ways, like by instituting corrective action plans for all local agencies with an error rate over the national threshold, performing case reviews, requiring statewide training and holding two payment accuracy meetings a year with local agencies.

The department did not immediately respond to a question asking for more details on the “fiscal sanction.”

Staff writer Katie O’Connor contributed to this report.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing and previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress. She is the recipient of a first place award for explanatory reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists and has twice been honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]